If there is a single thread that knits the 11 stories in Election Day together, it is that despite the cloud of uncertainty that challenges American electoral process, there is no shortage of people that truly understand the value of their right to vote. Documentary filmmaker Katy Chevigny skillfully juggles eleven storylines during Election Day 2004, following subjects from pre-dawn until after midnight. The result is a sobering look at how many individuals interpret the privilege of their right to vote. In fact, the subtle conclusion one can draw is that the more oppressed the individual is – or the greater the struggle – the more determined and inspired they are to make their voice heard in the process.
Without much fanfare we meet several people starting their day; a poll watcher assembling his staff at a coffee shop, remote farm workers getting an early start to the day so their 18-year-old can vote for the first time; parents of a sick child working opposites shifts at the same factory in an effort to stay afloat above unending medical bills. No one has to say ‘real America’ for you to understand that these are hard working people – Democrats, Republicans and independents – who might be skeptical about the system but understand that not participating is a far worse option.
Chevigny doesn’t preach nor allow her subjects to do so, either. There are moments when you sense an individual is responding to an off-camera question or being careful with their words with filmed posterity in mind, and occasionally the subjects will be speaking to the viewer in a more direct manner. But for the most part one quickly forgets that there is even a camera crew in plain sight; the behavior and tone is such that we truly feel we are a fly on the wall observing many honest moments in a normal but special day.
Several of the subjects are fascinating characters. Republican poll watcher Jim Fuchs works the Chicago area districts making sure elections are handled fairly. He’s organized, diligent and even-tempered as he helps enforce the rules in a fairly upscale urban area, although he twice calls in for some additional pressure on those who presented any difficulty to him on his rounds. Early in the film he finds a defective portable voting machine and wonders aloud (and for the camera) how many votes might already have been mishandled. Ironically, he repeats the exercise at a second location only to find out that he was using the hole-punching device incorrectly all along; a humbling moment. He seems to know everyone everywhere, and we find out later he plans to run for office himself.
A few stories show dedicated individuals carting friends, family and strangers to the polling place for various reasons. A Native American village – also holding its Tribal elections the same day – requires a diligent effort thanks to the remote location, but they raised participation from one-third to 55 percent. A suburbanite is seemingly helping her elderly relatives get to the polls, but we quickly realize she has also provided them typed lists of whom to vote for. One touching vignette finds an ex-con — ineligible himself because he is still on probation – organizing a program to educate and register other qualified ex-con voters to reclaim their rights.
We meet many volunteers at polling places, several of which are so disorganized, manual and underequipped that it’s startling to realize how many of these scenarios possibly exist across America. Some of the volunteers and observers are well-schooled on rules and regulations and provide solid support. Others are so overwhelmed and underprepared; they complicate and escalate the very issues they are trying to solve.
The American media makes a huge spectacle of the event with competing networks rolling out huge tote boards, flashy computer animations and a battery of up-to-the-minute tabulations. But down at ground level, the activities are often as different as night and day. Americans casually accept the fact that less than half the eligible voters bother to exercise their right, and watching the difficulties that many in lower income of rural areas endure, it’s both an indictment of the system and a testament to their personal diligence.
One story follows an African-American candidate for Sheriff in a small town, an underdog in a primarily African American county that has not elected a person of color in a century. There are inferences of voter fraud and stolen ballots during prior years, but we don’t see anger and protests. We do watch the culmination of this grass roots event from the last minute promotion through the observation of the ballots being counted and locked away under armed guard, the hopeful candidate and onlookers almost prayerfully silent as they rest their faith in the system.
The elections of 2000 and 2004 provided plenty of controversial fodder for skeptics and conspiracy theorists, and Docurama is among many companies who have released stirring documentaries about foul play in the electoral process. With Election Day, Katy Chevigny has shown us the other side of the coin: American individuals who understand that the process and their ability to participate in it is a privilege and a hard-won right. This is not a thriller, nor does it expose improprieties or wrongdoing. Instead Election Day quietly reminds Americans that not only does our one vote count, but our large process is made up of thousands of small parts, where we do have an impact.