Filmmaker Ian Inaba enlists amateurs to turn their cameras on election sites

Video eyes to monitor polls

Maryland Votes 2006

November 07, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Filmmaker Ian Inaba knew there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Floridians turned away from the polls in 2000. But when he reviewed video from Election Day newscasts, he could find only two testimonials from frustrated voters worthy of a documentary he was making.

Inaba realized that network producers had assigned cameramen to trail candidates for most of the day - but not voters.

This year, to capture what the 35-year-old Inaba believes is still an incomplete story, he will deploy more than 600 amateur videographers in seven states likely to experience voting problems, including Maryland, to document possible confusion. The project is being called "Video the Vote."

"The networks are so focused on covering the winners and the losers on Election Day that sometimes the loser is the voter," said Inaba, of Berkeley, Calif., a 35-year-old Wharton School of Business graduate and former investment banker. "Now we're going to tell those voters' stories in as close to real-time as possible."

Today, runners will collect the videos from the field, upload them to the Internet, share the images with the mainstream media and post them on YouTube, a popular Web site for video sharing.

With about a dozen videographers ready in Maryland, a compelling video could unleash a new level of scrutiny on election officials and fuel perceptions that the nation's voting system is in need of repair.

Video the Vote partners, such as Common Cause and the People for the American Way Foundation, have established a national election protection hot line to field complaints from voters. Inaba's videographers will trail those groups' lawyers when they are dispatched to precincts with long lines or equipment failures.

"We've been tracking incidents in our database for years, but people aren't going to hang out all day and search our database," said Michele Lawrence Jawando, a national election protection coordinator for the foundation. "This is a visual picture that will shine a light on some of the things we find out."

Jawando said that at first the foundation had reservations about Inaba's effort because people have used video cameras as a form of voter intimidation in the past. But she said "Video the Vote" members will identify themselves.

Under Maryland law, the videographers will not be allowed into polling places, but stories told from a few hundred feet away from the doors could prove to be as compelling.

One of the most powerful scenes from Inaba's documentary, American Blackout, which focuses on the alleged disenfranchisement of black voters in 2000 and 2004 and won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, was captured by a grainy hand-held camera panning across a long line of black voters standing in a downpour in the dark in Ohio. The line extended into a pitch-black wooded area.

The 86-minute documentary shows how election officials removed voting machines in some majority black Columbus, Ohio, precincts, despite a surge in voter registration by as much as 27 percent in four years. The machines were relocated to more affluent suburbs, creating the lines.

"You have to take a stand," said Joshalyn Lawrence, a 50-year-old amateur videographer from Washington, who met Inaba at a screening of his documentary during a Congressional Black Caucus conference and signed up for the Maryland effort. "Something has to be done about our voting system."

Inaba's interest in this topic began, improbably, with the rapper Eminem. In 2004, Inaba directed the music video for Eminem's "Mosh," an anti-war, politically charged rap song, which debuted shortly before that year's presidential election and garnered an MTV Video Award nomination.

"It really was my first voting piece," Inaba said. "I saw the reaction young people had to it - how it inspired them to become civically engaged."

The idea for a documentary grew from there. Inaba, who is of Japanese, Norwegian and Irish heritage, said that he decided to focus on the experiences of black voters because of an "undeniable pattern" in the footage he was reviewing.

On Wednesday night, Inaba flew into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and then drove to Adelphi for a training session for poll watchers.

Lawrence attended the training session, recording the event for six other videographers, as did Aaron Brady of Baltimore, another Video the Vote volunteer.

Brady learned about the project on the blog Daily Kos. A promo for the effort also has been viewed by almost 220,000 people on YouTube.

"I think the effort will attract the mainstream media, which has been inattentive to this issue," said Brady, 34, who owns a multimedia production company.

Inaba, who was dressed in faded jeans, an American Blackout T-shirt and a black corduroy jacket, leaned on his hand-held camera - supported by a collapsed tripod - and stumped like a motivational speaker, holding a DVD of his documentary in his left hand.

"Florida 2000 was our wake-up call," he told the group of about 40 people. "And electronic voting machines have created a new wave, a new set of problems. Video the Vote is going to be the nation's eyes and ears on Election Day 2006."

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