Youngstown, OH
Youngstown is the kind of place that mapmakers forget to put on their products. I don’t mean that as an insult to its people, but it’s a fact. Although large enough – some 100,000 people call it home – Youngstown just isn’t one of Ohio’s great destinations. Suffering from post-industrial decay, with thousands of jobs migrating to the Deep South or further afield, it’s something of an architectural wasteland.

Vacant lots mingle with boarded up homes and tumble-down warehouses. The roads are noticeably more striated by cracks than elsewhere in the state. There are fewer road signs, and far less traffic than in Columbus or Cincinnati, at least in the center. It’s not, at first glance, a beautiful place.

But it isn’t a bad place at all. Video the Vote will have a presence here on Tuesday, and hopefully beyond, thanks to a nucleus of four activists, all of whom seem competent and keen to redress past wrongs inflicted by the GOP. What’s more, the city has an activist community and a cultural life which its run down portions would not suggest to the casual visitor. As I say, I don’t mean to insult its people. The ones that I’ve met are fine.

It’s a blue collar town, with a Democrat identity. The snag for Obama, if we want to think in those terms, may be that it isn’t just a Democrat town, it’s in the Hilary Belt, which posed a challenge to the Illinois Senator during his primary campaign. Of course, it won’t turn Republican because of that, but turnout is key.

Indeed, areas like Youngstown, with the memory of industrial vigor, and the scars to prove it, are a blind spot for Obama, who talks little about industry in his speeches. As with John McCain, his language is about “jobs,” in a generic sense, not what kind. He hasn’t persuaded these areas of his belief in helping them to move forwards. Along with that, although it wasn’t in evidence tonight, there is the complication of race. The labor movement in the Rust Belt often suffered deep racial divisions – to the great benefit of exploitative employers and union bosses alike. That hasn’t exactly disappeared.

But the Youngstown residents I met tonight don’t share any of that. They seem to have their sights on progress for the city, with some working hard on greening (and reforesting) its neighborhoods, while others laud its cultural developments, or high-tech companies.

Deb Weaver, a Youngstown attorney told me that although the media has discovered an interest in Youngstown in recent weeks, it often chooses to stress the negatives, and ignores the positives. She cited an interview with France24, in which she talked about how the city is moving forward. Instead of carrying that, the journalists chose to shoot segments in front of decaying factories, showing elderly African American women hunched over shopping carts trudging home or interviewing elderly men in barber shops “pining” for the good old days.

In her opinion, the people of Youngstown are “done with the steel mills and ready to move on.” I hope so. Still, Youngstown is haemorraging children from its school system, its night is filled with siren sounds, and its economy lags behind neighboring Akron. There is plenty of work to do for an incoming president, if he cares to take it on. The free market ain’t gonna cut it, at least not in our life times.

As for the elections in Youngstown, there are signs of deep problems. One of the participants in the Video the Vote training session was a precinct judge, who obviously can’t film on the day,  but supports the idea. After watching John Ennis’ film Free For All, she was startled by the information it carried about voting machines, maintaining that at the training sessions for poll officials that she has attended, very little information has been supplied about how the machines work, potential flaws and what to do if problems occur. This should have been addressed by now by Democrat Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, but it seems not to have been.

Judging from what she says, poll workers are extremely poorly prepared and resourced. The precinct that she will be working at is not ready to process a large amount of provisional ballots in he event of mechanical failure and no-one outside of the voting machine companies knows how to reboot the machines.

The privatization of elections is clearly well protected by the lack of training given to public officials. If paper ballots were used exclusively, then this would not be a problem, as Ennis describes in a post today for the Public Record website (in response to articles about VTV’s West Virginia video, which is creating some confusion).

What looks clear is that VTV volunteers in Youngstown will have no shortage of subject matter come election day. Let’s hope they have enough resources to do it justice.

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