I sighed in relief when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the executive order that those of us who evacuated to other parts of the city due to Superstorm Sandy could vote via affidavit. As he aptly stated, “Displaced doesn’t mean disenfranchised.” Even if my vote didn’t count immediately, at least I knew I could have a say in the next person to sit in the White House and in Congress.
But I also retained the lesson from Tropical Storm Irene and the warnings from voting activists to people of color about intimidation tactics to keep people from voting. I’m a Black woman in a country that stays questioning my existence and, by extension, my citizenship—and I’m homeless—so I felt I had to have paperwork to prove that I not only exist, but that I have the right to vote. I made sure to pack my state ID (though I haven’t had a chance to renew it), my Board of Elections reminder, my ID from my gated community in Coney Island, and several mailings from my address there.
With that, my new friend, Christina—with whom I’m currently staying—and I walked to the polling station, a church on Bergen Street. I showed the poll worker, a young Black man, my Board of Elections reminder and stated that I was displaced and came to vote. When he started scrolling around on his phone, my heart dropped. “No, Gawd, no,” I thought,” please don’t tell me that I can’t vote here, that I have to trek somewhere else. Don’t tell me that my citizenship is already being questioned, in my homeland yet so far from home. “ Christina and I exchanged looks as we parted, her to vote in her district and me to some limbo.
The young man told me to go to the table where they signed in voters. To two older white men I said again that I was displaced, was staying in the neighborhood, and wanted to vote. And I felt my voice becoming desperate and determined in my pronunciation, as if I was calmly warning him of the storm of my brandishing every piece of ID and mailing stating my existence and citizenship and screaming on my phone to the Department of Justice about my not being able to vote as Cuomo said I could. One of the men pointed me to District 63 at the far end of the church basement. And I thought,” Shit, is this how they’re going to disenfranchise my displaced ass? By shuffling me around until I get frustrated and leave?” But I walked over to District 63.
I went right up to the woman of color behind the table and, again, explained my reason for being in her “district.” With an motherly wave of her hand, she gave me an affidavit, a ballot, and a manila envelope. And her words assuaged me: ”That’s fine, ma’am. Fill out the affidavit in the front with all the requested information, fill out your ballot, put the ballot in the affidavit, seal the affidavit, and give it back to me in the manila folder. And just wait for a booth to open up.”
And when a booth opened up, she pointed it out to me. And I voted. And returned my enveloped ballot to her in the manila folder.
I told my mom about my experience at the voting station. She said that she was sure the volunteers just knew by my demeanor and tone of voice that I was determined to vote. “And if more people of color came to the ballot box like that, they would probably just pave the way to let us through.”
And, though I’m still homeless, I felt a moment of normalcy because, at least, I had a say in the direction I wanted my homeland to go.