In November 2012, I volunteered as an election observer for the Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights in Massachusetts during the US general election. I wrote this piece then but couldn’t find a place to publish it. The following is based on actual events but names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
When Josiah D. walked into the polling station in Mattapan, MA, he was tired. Josiah had been seriously ill for several months, battling cancer, but when he heard that his wife, Elizabeth, was heading down to the polling station he knew he had to come with her. At 78 years old, Josiah was born in an era when several key legal obstacles to African-American suffrage were being taken apart. He was only six when the Supreme Court barred the Democratic Party from holding all-white primaries in Smith v. Allwright in 1944, but he would have to wait until he was 27 for the Voting Rights Act to ban all discriminatory voting practices. Josiah lived through some of the darkest moments in the history of the African-American community in the US, and he survived it all, managing to find love with a beautiful, kind woman and to build a life for their small family.
Josiah had also lived through the triumphs. He was sixteen when Rosa Parks’ courageous defiance led to the Montgomery boycott in 1955. He was twenty-one when six students organised a sit in at the Greensboro Woolworths Counter that would feed into an eventual ban on segregation in public accommodations. He was twenty-four when Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial and delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
I didn’t know Josiah at this time, but I can only imagine the sense of triumph he experienced when he witnessed the election of President Barack Obama. I imagine it gave him a sense of awe, witnessing the arc of history curving towards some sense of justice for those who for centuries had been denied the right to live, love and pursue happiness as equal citizens. I also imagine that when it emerged that people like Chief Justice John Roberts, perhaps oblivious to the weight of the historical injustice that they were perpetrating, were trying to turn back time on voter registration, he was angry and deeply disappointed. I suppose, like most people who had been “otherised” for most of their lives, Josiah heard the “dog whistling” — insidious appeals that politicians make to rile up extreme elements in their base — and wondered when the country he called home would finally accept him and people who look like him as full, participatory members of the community.
I can only imagine that these were the thoughts in Josiah’s mind when he left his house on November 6 to head to the polling station. His cancer was already advanced and a lung infection had reduced his capacity to breathe so much that he dragged a heavy oxygen tank with him as he walked.His wife Elizabeth wanted him to stay home while she went to the polling station, but Josiah insisted that he would go, and promised he would wait for her in the car. But when they arrived at the polling station, again, he pushed: he was determined to get into that polling station and cast his vote.
I saw Josiah struggle to come into the polling station that day, without a sense that something unusual was going to happen. There had been many elderly voters coming into the polling station, and as an election observer for the Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights under Law, I was legally only allowed to answer questions and remove any physical or psychological — intimidation, harassment, confusion on polling stations — barriers to their voting. Josiah was tired, so I offered him a seat, and asked him for his address so we could find what precinct he was registered to vote in. I sensed him struggling, but I thought maybe if he just caught his breath, he would be fine, and he could go in and cast his ballot. His wife Elizabeth must have felt the same way, because she went in to see how they electoral officials could help while we sat with Josiah, waiting for him to catch his breath.
Suddenly, Josiah wanted to use the bathroom. It wasn’t the calm request of a person who was trying to ease their discomfort. He needed to go right then. There was a sense of urgency in the way Josiah repeatedly asked to use the restroom. He was anxious about something. At first I thought it was the small crowd that was milling around him: his wife, two election officials, his neighbour, my colleague and myself. I tried to step back and give him some room to compose himself, but his anxiety was mounting.
When Josiah passed out, there was a flurry of activity as we all scrambled to find someone to help. The police officer radioed an ambulance, and two other people called 911 as well. The lobby area was shut down, and Josiah was moved to the floor so he could receive CPR from the school nurse. I held Elizabeth’s hand as we prayed for Josiah, willing him to be strong and hold on. And he was. Josiah fought so hard. By the time the ambulance arrived he still had a pulse — an extremely weak one, but it was there.
You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep, and when Elizabeth and I moved into an adjoining room where she got some water as we continued to pray, I could tell that Josiah must have been an extraordinary person to be so loved by someone so wonderful. Through her tears, Elizabeth thanked me, much more than I feel I deserved. She told me their whole story, including that they had been together for 47 years, and that they have one daughter who herself was battling stomach cancer. Although visibly shaken and confused and her eyes glistened with unshed tears, she managed to smile brightly and thank God that I was there with her. Me, the election observer who only had to make sure that everyone who wanted to could vote. She even asked me what I was planning to do with my life, and when I said I didn’t know, she said that I should stay in Boston.
When I called the hospital the next day, I found out that Josiah continued to fight, through the ride to the hospital, through the first part of results night, but unfortunately, he never made it to the morning. He quite literally gave his last ounce of energy to make it to that polling station. It resonated with me. In my country Kenya, elections are pretty synonymous with death, but in Kenya, people die because they are attacked by others; for their political beliefs or ethnic background. Here was a man who believed so much in the power of his vote that he defied stage 4 cancer to go and cast it.
I used to think that I took voting seriously but now I’m not really sure I did until the day I held a woman’s had while she watched her husband die, knowing that he died because he had to go out and vote. Regardless of the many shameful moments in the US presidential campaigns — the obscene amounts of money spent, the lies and misrepresentations, the ad hominem attacks and the flagrant abuse of electoral laws — US citizens should be proud to live in a democracy that inspires such devotion. And one very easy way of demonstrating that pride is waking up on voting day and heading down to the polling station.