At the corner of 26th Street and Cesar Chavez, the electricity of election day is palpable. Young men stand with “No on Prop. 8” posters; passersby honk to show their support; Barack Obama posters hang in shop windows like advertisements for a new and better America.
But in the shadows of this scene sit 30 or 40 men who hold no signs and wear no candidate’s buttons. Raul Gutierrez is one of them.
He would like to vote for Obama. But he can’t.
“Of course I hope Obama wins!” Gutierrez shouts excitedly in Spanish. “I think he will make things better for us. Juan McCain is no friend to the Mexicans.”
Gutierrez is an undocumented immigrant, and is among the almost half-million residents of California who—for reasons including citizenship status or felony convictions—do not have the right to vote in this presidential election.
Robert Harris, a 37-year-old African-American, was born and raised in Oakland and was convicted of a felony ten years ago. He now works for the Northern California Service League, an organization that helps ex-convicts transition into society, and he also supports Obama.
“He’s the only candidate that cares about people who may have had difficulties in life,” says Harris. “It’s not just that he cares about minorities, it’s that he understands what life is things are like for the majority of people in the U.S.—for black folks, for poor folks, for anybody who’s not really wealthy and hasn’t had the easiest life.”
But while people like Gutierrez and Harris represent the bulk of disenfranchised, there is another, smaller and self-selecting group of people who will not be voting.
“I’ve never voted in a presidential election,” says James Robinson, 31, “because I’m an anarchist. “The entire system is a sham. Voting is designed to make us feel like we are actively participating in the political system, that we have control over our lives — but really what it amounts to is us going in to a booth once every four years and then we are supposed to feel like we are represented.”
Robinson says instead of voting in presidential elections, he’s gotten involved in local politics, preparing food for the homeless as part of Food Not Bombs and volunteering at a local radical bookstore.
For his part, Harris agrees that voting isn’t the only form of meaningful politics.
“You’ve got to get active in your community, you’ve got to help out on a local level,” he says.
“I think Obama appeals to the disenfranchised,” says Saneta Devuono-Powell, who works for the ACLU, “because, unlike any Presidential candidate ever before, Obama himself—a black man— comes from a disenfranchised group. People who are marginalized for whatever reason can identify with that.”
As the election day wore on, Gutierrez waited along Cesar Chavez for a car to pull up and offer him a job, Harris worked at his desk and Robinson had to do something today quite out of the ordinary for him.
He had to–wanted to–leave work early to cast a vote in the presidential election.