“Capturing the Flag” Shows Just How Hard Voting Can Be

Elizabeth Levin

“Capturing the Flag” is an enlightening and inspiring new documentary from Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Anne de Mare that illustrates some of the ways in which voter suppression occurs in America and how the efforts of ordinary citizens can make a difference in ensuring that people are able to vote.

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder and subsequent changes made by states to voting laws, a group of volunteers came together prior to the 2016 election to engage in voter protection work. This documentary follows three of those volunteers, a group of friends, who travelled to Fayetteville, North Carolina to observe voting on election day and do everything in their power to make sure that everyone wishing to vote, and legally allowed to do so, was able to cast a ballot. Their work consisted primarily of stationing themselves at voting locations throughout the city from the time polls opened until they closed and making themselves available to anyone who had a question about voting. They asked people as they walked in if they had any questions and also asked people when they left if they had experienced any difficulties in casting their vote. It is one thing to read about the effects of voter suppression and how difficult it can be to vote in this country; it’s quite another to see the reality of that on film. The film is particularly effective because of its narrow focus, allowing viewers to see how real people are affected by the voting system in this country, and the confusion of frustration that they feel. As a viewer, it is infuriating to see people who have done nothing wrong be turned away by polling site officials without any guidance whatsoever.

The number of people in Fayetteville who had to overcome obstacles to vote, or who were not able to vote at all, is shocking. At one polling place featured in the film, out of 1200 people who showed up to vote, only 598 were able to do so. People wishing to vote experienced a variety of challenges in doing so. Many individuals had their names purged from the voter rolls and were not informed of their right to cast a provisional ballot until the volunteers reached out to them as they were leaving the polling location. Some were even falsely told they could not vote provisionally. Other voters were turned away for not having ID with them, which was not required under North Carolina law at the time. Many voters were told they had come to the wrong polling location, but were not given clear instruction as to where they should go. Others were sent to multiple locations and were turned away from each of them. This was often the result of the DMV’s mishandling of voters whose addresses had changed, and it seemed that this disproportionately affected African American voters. In these situations, many people, understandably, simply give up and go home. Throughout the film, the sense of responsibility, passion, and despair on the part of the volunteers is palpable, and immensely relatable.

The volunteers were able to help many of these people in Fayetteville. Many who otherwise would have gone home without voting either asked the volunteers for help or, when approached by the volunteers, explained what had occurred, allowing the volunteers to come up with a solution. Sometimes this was as simple as telling them they could go back and fill out a provisional ballot while at other times it involved making several phone calls to figure out where the individual needed to go to cast their ballot. None of the problems the volunteers encountered, however, were beyond their ability to handle, demonstrating that ordinary people with no background in election work can easily make a difference, if they are willing to take a little bit of time out of their lives to do so. The film makes it devastatingly clear that if these volunteers had not been present, many more people would have been unable to exercise their constitutional right to vote. “Capturing the Flag” is worth seeing for its educational value alone, but even more so because it captures both how great the need is for voter protection work and how much of a difference a single person can make in just one day.