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Polls closing, a dogged rush to make one vote count

on November 12, 2008


There had been triumphant moments, the afternoon of Nov. 4, at the Temescal branch of the Oakland Public Library. Voters came out of the booths basking. A man in a wheelchair declared he was so happy to vote for a black president that he wanted to do a flip. A smile wide on his face, he shared his joy with anyone who would listen.

Mary Green-King came out of a voting booth too, wearing an “I voted” sticker and three buttons emblazoned with photos of Michelle and Barack Obama. But behind her black glitter-dusted glasses, her eyes were anxious and her brows knit tightly in worry.

“I have an aunt who is gravely ill, and we might have to take her to the hospital,” said Mary, 59. It was 5 PM, three hours before the polls were to close. “She’s been voting for 40 years. Just the thought of her not being able to vote—it breaks your heart.”

Mary’s 63-year-old aunt, Wilhemena Webb, was on dialysis to sustain her failing kidneys. She was weak and nauseous and barely able to get out of bed. But Wilhemena had been walking to her polling place to vote for four decades, and despite her illness, she had intended to do the same on Nov. 4.

Mary Green-King, worrying outside the Temescal library

Mary Green-King, worrying outside the Temescal library

That afternoon, while dressing for voting day,Wilhemena had collapsed back to her bed, too weak to leave the house. Mary realized an alternate plan was in order. She contacted the Obama campaign headquarters in Oakland to appeal for help finding a way to let her ailing aunt vote. Attorneys from the Obama campaign had written a letter, asking polling places to allow Wilhemena to vote via absentee ballot.

So Mary found herself at the Temescal library branch now, hoping for a spare absentee ballot. There were none. She sent her nephew to the polling place at 98th and MacArthur. There were none. She called the Emeryville Senior Center. There were none.

“She’s in tears,” Mary said. “She says, ‘We’ve fought so long and so hard. Just the thought of not being able to vote…’ It just tears me apart.”

Much ink has been spilled on the big deal this election has been. It was big deal for Democrats eager to see their party back in the White House. It was a big deal for young people, many of them voting for the first time. But for some Oakland voters, people like Mary and Wilhemena, this vote was a watershed moment in their personal histories, histories marked by discrimination and struggle. This vote was a very, very big deal for them.

Both Mary and Wilhemena grew up in New Orleans, during the 1950s and 1960s. Mary remembers having to step off the sidewalk and into the street when a white person wanted to pass. She saw a lynching when she was eight years old.

At a civil rights march with activist James Forman, Mary recalls being bombarded with men in white hoods.

“We had to hold our faces to the ground so the horses wouldn’t trample us,” she said.

Mary was planning to spend election night at home on 53rd and Telegraph, enjoying a spaghetti dinner with friends and family. A long and extraordinary night stretched before her. She would think about her mother, who passed away 16 years ago. She would think about her family still in Louisiana, a state she loves, despite its contentious history and its current struggles. As in so many other homes in Oakland, there would be anticipation and anxiety in Mary’s home, and then a burst of elation when the networks made their pronouncement, that Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States. At 8:00 PM, when the California polls closed and Obama’s win was official, Mary would fall to her knees. There would be tears. There would be screaming. Mary would grab a friend and keep asking, “Is it real? Is it happening?” Mary’s 26-year-old niece LaToya Harris would still be in shock, telling her friends and family to pinch her, to prove this was real. Striding back and forth in her living room, Mary would begin to sing.

“I’ve got a new way of walking, a new way of talking…a new kind of attitude.”

But first, Wilhelmena had to vote.

At 7:10 pm, Mary met an attorney from the Obama campaign at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office, in the Alameda County Courthouse near Lake Merritt. There they prepared an affidavit, to be signed by Wilhelmena Webb, confirming that she really was who she said she was.

Ballot in hand, Mary headed home, racing against a rapidly approaching deadline as poll closing time drew nearer.

Wilhemena–in the presence of two witnesses, Mary’s nieces LaToya and Portia—sat up in bed and filled out her ballot to elect the first African-American president of the United States. Mary arrived at the registrar’s office at 7:50 pm–ten minutes before the polls were to close across the state.

The celebration in Mary’s house lasted until 4 am. There was dancing and singing, listening to albums loaded with history and meaning. Songs like “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and “Say It Loud! (I’m Black and I’m Proud!)” by James Brown. There was even a new variation of the Electric Slide, christened the Obama Shuffle.

Wilhemena remained upstairs, too ill to participate in the raucousness below. But her ballot had passed from one hand to another, and landed where it needed to, and in her room, there were signs of her own celebration: a tray of food, a glass of celebratory sparkling cider, and a sticker on her nightgown that read, “I voted.”


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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