As another election season draws to a close marked by yet another contentious political scandal, a short documentary film on our last Presidential race has made its way from the Sundance Film Festival to an independent DVD release. No Umbrella: Election Day in the City is a look at one of Cleveland’s busiest polling places circa November 2, 2004. Plagued by long lines, short tempers and bureaucratic incompetence, Ward Seven was ground zero for what the Democratic Party later termed “massive and unprecedented voter irregularities” and “intentional misconduct.” What went wrong?
No Umbrella doesn’t attempt to provide any answers instead it shows us a very dysfunctional day in the life of our sacred democratic election process. Cleveland-based filmmaker Laura Paglin (Nightowls of Coventry) arrived at Ward Seven, one of Ohio’s poorest voting districts, armed only with a digital camcorder. And while the unexpected outcome of her trip won’t win any awards for its ultra low-tech style, with almost no budget Paglin somehow managed to succinctly capture both the suspicion and crippling frustration that haunt Ohio’s electorate to this day.
The unofficial star of No Umbrella is Ms. Fannie Lewis. This eighty year-old Cleveland legend has served as councilwoman for Ward Seven since 1980 and is not afraid to kick a little ass for her constituency. She spends the entire 26 minute film on her cell phone cajoling, coaxing and otherwise begging anyone who will listen for help in managing the gridlock that would end up heralding one of the most spectacular Election Day failures of the past twenty years. Ms. Lewis even blows off a photo-op with Jesse Jackson to stay with the beleaguered would-be voters, most of which had to stand in line for over an hour just for a chance to cast their ballots.
“It’s as if we prayed for rain but didn’t bring an umbrella,” says Ms. Lewis, referring to the record turnout of voters and the shortage of machines and personnel to serve them. And with polling running smoothly in all suburban and exurban areas of the state, it is no wonder that the predominantly poor residents of Ward Seven begin to feel that a conspiracy is to blame. Women cry with frustration, a white man is told to get out and, as always, line cutters are severely dealt with. Through it all a megaphone keeps insisting that residents “vote early, vote often and vote Democratic.” It seems at many points that the ever expanding line would erupt in violence if not for the calm and clever wit of Fannie Lewis.
The wonder of this documentary is that through all of the chaos and acrimony, the majority of people who got on line to vote stayed on line. Even with politicians dropping by sporadically, each promising to deliver the needed materials to Ms. Lewis “immediately” and each disappearing without making good, there appeared to be very few potential voters who just gave up and left. If this doesn’t contradict the widely held notion that today’s electorate are apathetic I’m not sure what does.
Of course the irony is that many of the minority voters who waited so long to let their voices be heard ended up becoming disenfranchised anyway. It was widely known post-election that Ohio Secretary of State (and current gubernatorial candidate) Ken Blackwell rejected the use of provisional ballots and destroyed thousands of voter registration cards due to the weight of the paper they were printed on. The fact that Blackwell was also the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio made a lot of people justly suspicious.
For her part, Laura Paglin manages to stay politically neutral for the bulk of her documentary, focusing instead on the indefatigable Fannie Lewis and the democratic dedication of those that she represents. It is not until No Umbrella ends with a printed epilogue juxtaposed with a Blackwell-hosted “Your Vote Counts” ad, that we get a little left-wing spin. Paglin quotes a January 2005 “Congressional Report” that documented the “illegal behavior” of Ken Blackwell. While I have no trouble believing these allegations, to fail to mention that this report was drafted by Democratic Party staffers is being as negligent as a Republican who insists that victory in Iraq is still achievable. To imply that the conclusions of this document were adopted or approved by our Congress is misleading and politically incorrect.
But congratulate director Paglin for knowing her audience. Democrats and anti-Bush voters are still raw over the 2004 Presidential results and terrified of what the newer electronic voting machines may have in store for future elections. No Umbrella serves as an understated tonic for the troubled psyche of the Democratic demographic it targets. It offers us a feisty heroine and more than one scapegoat to ridicule and revile. After all, it is easier to blame a Machiavellian madman for the unfortunate election results than to have to admit that our own side may be just as crooked.
No Umbrella: Election Day in the City
Produced, directed, edited & shot by Laura Paglin
Released by the Creative Filmmakers Association
26 minutes/Not Rated/ DVD contains no bonus material