Matthew Segal '08 continues his crusade for election reform, as an Oscar-nominated filmmaker turns the spotlight on Kenyon
Everything seemed a bit strange to sophomore Matthew Segal when he walked into the Gambier Community Center to vote on Election Day 2005, so different from the scene one year earlier. No lines of people snaked through the building. His footsteps echoed in the eerie quiet of nearly empty hallways. No one was sitting around eating pizza, playing cards, killing time. No buzz of excitement. Just a sleepy polling station in a quiet college town.
"I was thinking to myself, 'What path would I have taken the last year if it had looked like this in 2004?'," Segal says with a wry smile.
What path indeed. Since November 2, 2004, Segal's life has been a whirlwind of meetings with prominent political leaders, interviews with CNN and other national media, testimony before Congress, and planning huddles with activists. As anyone connected to Kenyon knows, Election Day 2004 put Kenyon and Gambier in the national spotlight. Long lines of voters, mostly students, kept the polls open until nearly 4:00 a.m. on November 3, spurring international coverage, as well as debate about whether our nation's voting procedures need to be reformed.
For Segal and others, those long lines at the polls sparked changes: a brand new political interest for some, and re-energized political passions for others. Without a doubt, the events of the 2004 election started a rumbling that continues to reverberate through campus, ebbing and flowing, seeming to fade away and then suddenly reawakening.
On two cold days this February, Segal, a double major in English and sociology, felt the energy flowing again. He and a videographer from Columbus were scheduled to shoot interviews with eight Kenyon students and faculty members, discussing the problems they faced while voting in 2004 and how the ordeal affected them. The interviews were for a new documentary film about the election by Dorothy Fadiman, a politically oriented filmmaker from California whose previous work has won an Emmy and received an Oscar nomination, among other honors.
The film, with a working title of "Who Counts? Protecting Your Vote and Your Voice," will take a critical look at the election, and argue the case for voting and election reform. It will explore, among other issues, how groups including inner-city residents (mostly minorities), ex-felons, and college students such as those at Kenyon were either denied the right to vote or faced major obstacles.
Fadiman heard about Segal while researching her film and asked him to identify people at Kenyon to appear in the film, scout out locations for the interviews, and conduct the interviews himself.
"Matthew did all the work that a field producer would do," says Fadiman. "To have that responsibility is unusual for someone his age."
Indeed, Segal is a natural for this role as an organizer. Before the election, he worked with the Knox County Democratic Party to help get out the vote. But it was after the election that he gained a degree of fame. His anger about the long lines at the polls led him to speak at a voting reform discussion at Kenyon. That led to his appearance at a Columbus church in a forum sponsored by an organization called the National League of Pissed Off Voters. Later, he testified before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., and spoke in Cleveland along with Ohio Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Senator Hillary Clinton about proposed voting reform legislation.
Things quieted down for a few months, Segal says; then early this year he got a call from Fadiman, and he found himself once again wrapped up in the events of November 2004.
"I think a lot of people, especially students, became discouraged by what happened," Segal says, speaking of the 2004 Election Day in Gambier. "We had been told all this glorious stuff about 'rocking the vote,' and 'voting for change.' But in reality, when they showed up to vote, students saw a scene that was the opposite of everything that was portrayed in the media. It was very undemocratic."
The long lines revealed the need for more federal funding for voting machines so that polling stations in places like Gambier could accommodate projected vote counts, he says. While students at Kenyon warned the local board of elections, long before Election Day, about large increases in the number of registered student voters and asked for more machines, they were denied. The cost was one reason cited.
Other reforms that Segal supports include same-day registration, in which voters can register and vote at the same time, and national registration procedures to ensure that voters across the country have equal opportunity to exercise their voting rights. In addition, he would like Election Day to be a national holiday so that work and other obligations don't interfere with voting.
Fadiman says the footage she saw of Segal's interviews tell an "impressive" story of Kenyon students working hard to register their peers and then fighting unsuccessfully to get more voting machines to handle the expected crush of new voters. But the story doesn't
"The feeling I have is that they came out of this situation with a sense of purpose," Fadiman says.
The Longest Line
Whether they left the polling booth with a sense of purpose or not, nearly everyone who stood in line that night has a story to tell. Sarah Heidt, an assistant professor of English, has collected many of these stories in the form of essays, e-mail messages, digital photos, and even poems. She is putting them into a collection called "I Voted Today," which will eventually make its way into the College archives. Right now, she has about forty pages of documents, as well as photos taken that night, that she received as a result of an e-mail request she made to campus.
Heidt says she was struck by how passionate students and faculty were about the fact that they stood in line so long to vote. One student sent an e-mail to his mother saying, "I waited six hours, not to vote for a candidate, but to support an ideal: that America, my America, could be better, could do better."
Some people talked proudly about standing in line, displaying the number of hours they waited like a badge of honor. Others, though, felt more angry than honored. One woman wrote: "Everyone here has been so proud of the national news coverage. I'm not proud, I'm embarrassed. Yes, we cared enough to wait, but we should not have had to wait in the first place."
Heidt says one student submitted a poem called "Election Day" that struck a hopeful note, wondering if the events wouldn't spur reform in the country.
"I think that was a feeling that a lot of students here had, that this election was going to shake up the national political scene in a way that it ultimately didn't," Heidt says. But, she adds, the final chapter hasn't been written. "I think there is a little bit of energy that is starting to swing back into action now. I think the closer we get to 2008, the more vocal people are going to be."
Almost as soon as Election Day was over, Kenyon students and faculty began trying to figure out what had happened in Gambier and what it all meant. That preoccupation changed the direction of a class taught by Lewis Hyde, the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing. He was teaching a creative nonfiction class in November 2004 that was dedicated to writing about nature. But after the election, Hyde says, "We found ourselves captured by the story of 'the line.'" So Hyde and his ten
students began interviewing people who had had some role in what happened, including an official from the county board of elections, the mayor of Gambier, and a student who had been active registering
people to vote.
The result was a class-produced pamphlet called "The Longest Line," consisting of the students' stories based on their interviews. About two hundred copies of the pamphlet were published and all of them quickly sold out in the Kenyon bookstore. "It is probably a rare and unusual item now," Hyde says with a laugh.
Kenyon students had another opportunity to ponder the 2004 presidential election and their historic role in it on May 20, when the 2004 Democratic challenger, U.S. Senator John F. Kerry, spoke at the College's 178th graduation ceremony.
One of the seniors who was eager to hear Kerry speak is Kate Barney, an American studies major who had worked to register students before the election. The whole election experience, she says, was both exciting and deflating.
"It was a great part of history to live through, but I think post-
election there was a lot of disappointment," says Barney. Much of the disappointment for her comes from the fact that the county did not add more voting machines, or polling places, despite pleas from students who realized that newly registered students could overwhelm the system.
"It definitely pushed many of us after the election to keep the momentum we had, and try to fix things," Barney says. "We realized that voting reform is really one of the top priorities of our generation."
Segal admits that not all students feel the sense of passion that he and Barney do about what happened in Gambier in November 2004. A minority of students "are saying let's drop this issue, it was a year and half ago and there's nothing we can do. But that attitude really upsets me," Segal says. "It strikes me as complacency."
For Segal, complacency is not an option. While he has always been politically active, the 2004 election kindled new energies. This summer and fall, he will work as a personal intern to Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington, D.C., bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People.
"I'm sure we will touch on the voting subject," Segal says. "I think I will have more impact in D.C. because of my experiences here in the 2004 election."
Longer term, it is no surprise that Segal hopes for a career in politics, ultimately as an elected official of some sort. In pursuit of that goal, he already has learned a lot about dealing with the media from both sides of the microphone. As he interviewed students and faculty for Fadiman's election documentary, he put to use valuable lessons he'd drawn from the journalists who interviewed him.
"I think I picked up some good pointers from being on the other side of the camera," he says. "After being interviewed many times, I recognized that the reporters always made good eye contact." That, along with smiling, nodding, and positive body language, "makes people feel more connected and comfortable with the interviewer and more prone to opening up."
He says he also learned to ask clear and direct questions, and to make sure that his interviews stay on topic.
During a break from his interviews, Segal admitted his life has been hectic since November 2004. But all he needs to feel rejuvenated is to think back to that Election Day scene.
"The remarkable thing about Kenyon is that so many people showed the perseverance to wait it through to the end. That's why I've been so involved in reforms since then, because of all we had to go through."
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