On Election Day, Americans took time to vote, and to explain why this ritual means so much to them. At polling places and in luncheonettes, on the storm-battered East Coast and in a California city hobbled by foreclosure, in precincts large and small, they celebrated democracy — and the end of a long and bitter campaign.
STOCKTON, Calif.: Signs of hope amid misery, and a first-time vote for one American who still believes in the dream
Every election big and small, Carl Chua rents out the garage of his family's house as a polling place. With neighbors working the tables and crossing his lawn to cast ballots, he stood in his driveway and surveyed the ruins of the housing bubble's aftermath.
"One, two, three, four, five. Six," the 52-year-old postal carrier said, pointing to the homes on his block that had fallen to foreclosures since the nation last picked a president. "We are the only ones left behind of the original owners."
Stockton, a port city 83 miles east of San Francisco, has spent the last four years with the highest foreclosure rate in the United States. In June, the city became the largest in the nation to ever declare bankruptcy. Here, the broken middle-class dreams debated by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are made of moving trucks, "For Sale" signs, plummeting credit scores and the bars that residents like Zelma Emery, 45, have put on their windows to prevent break-ins.
Emery, who was laid off from her job as a phlebotomist five years ago, blames Congress more than the White House for her community's pain. She voted to re-elect Barack Obama.
"It's gotten a little better. But right here anyway, it hasn't gotten much better," she said.
Yesenia Perez, 34, a mother of five who works at a local fruit-packing house, has had her share of hard times, too: Work hours cut. A home lost to foreclosure.
Yet on Tuesday, she felt compelled to do something she had never done before: vote.
Because of the immigration policies of the president she calls "Our Obama," several cousins no longer face deportation to Mexico. Instead, they can be part of a dream that, while broken, still is worth having, Perez said.
"In the past I didn't think I could make a difference in the election," she said, not long before the polls starting closing back East and Election Day 2012 neared its finish. "Now, I'm motivated."
—By LISA LEFF, Associated Press Writer
PHOENIX: In "show me your papers" state, young Latinos work to turn out vote
In a nondescript office building near an auto repair shop and a 99 Cents Only store, a dozen bleary-eyed volunteers sat before phones and computers, doing their part to contribute to democracy and a cause close to their hearts: Helping to turn out the Latino vote in a state that is 30 percent Hispanic.
"Buenos dias," said 23-year-old Norma Melendez as she answered phones at Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan effort to increase Hispanic participation in the electoral process. Melendez, wearing a shirt that read "Election Protection. You Have The Right To Vote," was going on 24-plus straight hours of work, helping to direct callers to the right polling places. "I just think it's important to vote. I don't like when people take advantage of others, or think they are ignorant somehow."
Next to her, Michael Maez gulped a Monster energy drink (his third of the day) as he prepared to send canvassers across the city.
Maez, 22, was born and raised in this state known for its tough stance on immigration and the so-called "show me your papers" law, requiring police enforcing other laws to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. But his father, who remodels homes, and his mother, who provides daycare services, came here from Morelos, Mexico. Unlike their citizen son, they are legal permanent residents and, therefore, ineligible to vote.
For Maez, this day was about much more than which candidates he chose or propositions he voted for or against. It was, in his words, a chance to "wake up" all politicians to the issues that matter to families like his. "It empowers all of the people who have a voice to use it for the ones who don't."
—By PAULINE ARRILLAGA, AP National Writer
LAKEWOOD, Colo.: Two women, two different decisions
In swing state Colorado, elections typically are decided in three suburban counties where women play a key role. That fact didn't escape the Romney and Obama campaigns, which spent plenty of time and money reaching out to that important voting bloc in Arapahoe, Larimer and Jefferson counties — and, indeed, all across the land.
In Lakewood, west of Denver in Jefferson County, finding the time to even vote was one of many challenges for single mother Amber Tuffield. Her day started in typical fashion: Three trips up the stairs to rouse her 13-year-old son, Dallas, out of bed. A trip down to the basement to find clean clothes for her 16-year-old daughter, Sage. Put a pot roast in the Crock-Pot for dinner.
Tuffield works two jobs — one as a secretary, the other bartending — and worries most about having decent health care and ensuring her children get a solid education. But two things in particular stuck with her this Election Day: Mitt Romney's secretly recorded assertion that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as "victims," and his suggestion that students should borrow money from their parents if they can't afford college.
It all left her questioning whether the Republican could really relate to people like her, and prompted this registered independent to vote for Obama instead.
"Looking at both of them, I'm more comfortable with the known than the unknown," said Tuffield, 44.
In Arapahoe County, Republican precinct leader Lori Horn spent her day coordinating poll observers. Like Tuffield, she worries about her children's future, but believes Romney and his economic plan are the best bet for her family.
"I have a daughter on the precipice of college and a career," said the 50-year-old mother of two. "I have to make this a priority."
—By P. SOLOMON BANDA, Associated Press Writer
CHICAGO: Supporting the president in style
Make no mistake — Carter's Barber Shop is Obama country.
None of the customers here waited until Tuesday to cast ballots. They voted for the president days or weeks ago. Kim Jackson, who was getting her hair trimmed, wore an "I WAS THERE" button that she bought that celebratory night four years ago when she watched President-elect Barack Obama take the stage in Grant Park.
Bert Downing, the shop's owner, said Obama needs more time to deal with "the huge plate of problems he inherited. ... It's a work in progress. I just want to see him complete the mission. "
Downing believes Obama has been treated differently because he's black. "The blatant disrespect?" he said, shaking his head in frustration. "Would they have done it if had been Bush or Reagan? At the bottom of all this ... is race. If he were white, he wouldn't have the same problems."
It would be hard to find a more Obama-friendly spot in this overwhelmingly Democratic city. The barber shop sits on the edge of a West Side ward that supported the president by a 99 percent-plus majority in 2008. And the regulars are pleased with his policies.
Charles Leeks, who had a liver transplant last November, pointed to Obama's health care program. Because of it, he said, he doesn't have to worry about a lifetime cap on insurance coverage.
But Leeks said the president doesn't get the credit he deserves. Instead, he said, Obama's been subject to harping about his birth certificate and college transcripts. "It's an insult to the country. ... All these things that we're patting ourselves on the back for as a society that we've really evolved — we still have a lot of work to do."
—By SHARON COHEN, AP National Writer
WARREN, Mich.: Off the factory line, on the streets
At the United Auto Workers regional headquarters, hundreds of volunteers awaited pep talks and final get-out-the-vote assignments on a cold, gray Tuesday. Among them: Keely Bell and Joseph Losier, two strangers paired up for last-minute door-knocking.