The Battle of Kenwood Hill
In Minnesota as in the rest of the country, the results of last Tuesday's presidential race turned on the grassroots, get-out-the-vote efforts by the two candidates. But where Karl Rove's Christian soldiers successfully delivered for President Bush throughout much of the heartland--and voted in droves in central Minnesota's Bible belt--this was one of the rare states where the Kerry-backers definitively won the "ground war."
While that term may sound hyperbolic, Election Day did deliver a number of heated skirmishes. The DFL, for its part, drafted an army of volunteers: Communications director Bill Amberg estimates that 20,000 party workers were mobilized for the November 2 effort. But the biggest change from previous elections was the participation of the MoveOn PAC, which set up refreshment tents and greeted voters at approximately 600 of Minnesota's 4,000 precincts.
MoveOn had encouraged throngs of eligible voters to come by the tents for celebratory cookies and coffee after voting. That contact enabled the group to check off names from their voter registers so they would know who needed transportation to the polls later in the day. Most of these refreshment tents were concentrated in heavily urban Hennepin and Ramsey counties, where Kerry outpolled Bush by more than 200,000 votes. (Minnesota's nation-high 77.3 percent turnout ultimately delivered Kerry a 98,000-vote victory margin.)
The Republicans were well aware of the threat MoveOn presented to their chances of capturing Minnesota for Bush, and went to great lengths to thwart the volunteer group. On Election Day, the party attempted unsuccessfully to secure a temporary restraining order against MoveOn, on the grounds that it was interfering with the democratic process.
"It was pretty clear that the Republicans had a very flimsy, politically calculated case," says David Lillehaug, who, on an hour's notice, represented MoveOn against the Republicans' legal ambush. "What they really wanted was to be able to hold a press conference before the polls closed claiming that allies of the Democrats were violating the law."
Stymied in the courts, Bush partisans took their enmity to the polling places. (They would also call in some 140 complaints to the secretary of state's office.) Throughout the day, reports surfaced that both eligible voters and MoveOn volunteers were being harassed and disrupted. One example occurred in the Kenwood neighborhood along Mount Curve Avenue, where MoveOn volunteers were stationed at the top of hill in a park across the street from the polling place. Due to a complaint from a Republican worker at the precinct, an election official came out and measured their location, finding it to be more than 200 feet away from the polling entrance. (A hundred feet is the distance mandated under Minnesota election law.)
Not satisfied with that finding, the Republican worker called the Minneapolis police, who likewise measured the distance, thanked MoveOn for their civic participation, and drove away. Next up was a squadron of four cars from the Minneapolis Park Police, who cited two laws that they said justified MoveOn's removal, only to back down when a legal observer challenged the opinion.
At the Little Earth Neighborhood Early Learning Center polling place in Minneapolis, a Republican worker challenged the right of a person with limited vision to have his address filled in by a person vouching for his registration. After putting the would-be voter under oath and asking him to state his address, the election judge denied the challenge. The Bush leaguer subsequently became more confrontational, decrying the presence of a group of international observers there to witness American democracy in action. Eventually, the police were called and the worker was ejected.
Outside the Church of New Life Christian Ministry at 35th Street and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, MoveOn volunteers twice relocated their refreshment tent in response to objections from Republicans inside. But after looking up the state statute and visiting the police station to verify the legality of their position, the volunteers returned to their second location, just outside the church parking lot. When a church employee again asked them to move, they successfully held their ground.
One of the more chilling incidents of Election Day harassment also occurred at a house of worship that was serving as a polling place, St. Therese Catholic Church in Deephaven. MoveOn volunteer Geoff Brown first dragged his card table farther away from the polls, the second time by cooperatively measuring off the 100-foot distance with a Deephaven police officer. But Brown's location was in the church parking lot, and he began to receive a series of verbal complaints about his presence. One woman began screaming at him about the sin of partial-birth abortion, another said he was "disgusting," and a third demanded he "get the hell off my property"--although the angry party later acknowledged he didn't own the land.
Finally, the church administrator came out and told Brown he couldn't be on private property and that he would be arrested if he didn't leave. Calls to both the Deephaven city attorney and the secretary of state's office confirmed that, even if Brown was more than 100 feet from the polling entrance, he couldn't be on private property if the owner didn't want him there.
After checking by phone with one Deephaven police officer and talking with two others who came by, Brown set up again on a public sidewalk facing another side of the church. The anti-abortion woman again confronted him, and, finding that she couldn't force him out of the state, sat in her car and took his picture.
Reached later by phone, Brown says, "The experience certainly instilled fear in me at the time, and left a pretty bitter taste in my mouth. I think these were extremists who don't represent most Republicans, many of whom are friends of ours. But the level of threats and harassment I received, I don't understand. It was too much."
Ed Johnson, the Minnesota campaign director for MoveOn PAC, acknowledges that some of his workers were harassed on Election Day, but prefers to downplay the incidents. "It honestly is not something we focused on," he says. "We were just trying to make sure that the election was going smoothly." Spoken with the equanimity of a man who just helped Kerry carry Minnesota.
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