“I slept and woke to the crazy exultant sounds of music and Dean and Marylou talking and the great green land rolling by. ‘Where are we?’ ‘Just passed the tip of Florida, man – Flomaton, it’s called.’ Florida!”
– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”
In Florida, the vote needs to be protected. Barack Obama supporter Mike Vitali, a Boston criminal defense lawyer who had long backed Joe Biden, bought a plane ticket, took off two weeks, and came to Florida to “make sure nobody is disenfranchised.”
Craig Winters, a Florida JD who does inside poll watching in Broward County put it plainly. “Our job is to ensure that the Florida statutes regarding voter access to the polls are properly enforced,” Winters said. “Everyone entitled under Florida law to vote should be allowed to do so. It’s that simple.”
Like Winters, Vitali remembered finding information through Barack Obama’s “Lawyers for Change” link. Everything is on his own dime. “You’re all lawyers. College students need the housing,” Vitali remembered the campaign telling him, he laughed.
Jane Sender, an out-of-state volunteer coordinator for Lawyers for Change, had met with a group of Boston-area lawyers to schedule volunteers for different states. Some went to Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, and, most popularly for the proximity, New Hampshire. Sender told Vitali that the campaign planned on bringing 5,000 lawyers to Florida. “She said, ‘Can you come?’ I said, ‘I have a law practice.'” Without missing a beat, “she said, ‘Early voting starts October 20th.'” Vitali came.
For two weeks, Vitali has protected the vote in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, and which George Bush won by 31,444 votes in 2004. It was surprising to him, as a Massachusetts resident, that there would be lines of early voting in Florida. Encountering lines “at least an hour long” everywhere he went, Vitali was thrilled when Governor Charlie Crist extended early voting hours, which ended yesterday. “Crist did a truly great thing,” Vitali said. “To make sure every vote in Florida gets counted” is the reason he flew down.
Vitali and other lawyers have undergone extensive training in Florida election law. They report to a lead counsel every day, with records “in as much detail as you can imagine.” If something comes up that is critical, something the on-the-scene voter protection lawyers can’t fix on the spot, they’ll call it in to their lead counsel. For example, if someone is told that they need a voter registration card to vote, when all they need is a picture ID, Vitali and his cohorts around the state are there to educate. “A big part of what we’re doing is educating the public,” Vitali said.
Another example Vitali offered was making sure voters weren’t denied the right to vote if the driver’s license address didn’t match the voter roll address. The ID is for identifying that the voter is, in fact, the person voting, not for voting purposes. “It doesn’t need to match,” Vitali noted. “If you can swear that you live in the county, the photo ID is to say, you’re that person.”
Inside the polling locations are Florida-certified JDs. Winters is one of those who sits inside the polls. Winters had to sign up and register for that post ahead of time, as only voters registered in Broward County are allowed inside the polling locations. Inside poll watchers bring their own folding chair, lunch, drinks, snacks and cellphones. Winters also “has a nifty hat” identifying him as a poll watcher.
As to the frustrations and challenges he’s come across thus far, Winters felt concerned about the massive lines for early voting. “Because many have busy schedules, such as work and child care obligations, this is an unacceptable situation,” he said, and “exercising one’s right to vote under these conditions can have very real financial consequences.”
“Hopefully, when 900 precinct polling locations are open on election day, versus the 17 early voting locations, things will move faster.”
Winters said that the operation in Broward County is similar to the one in 2004. Many poll workers now worked Broward in 2004, which went smoothly and appears to be going smoothly again. Vitali concurred. Despite the lines, “early voting seem(ed) to be running pretty smoothly,” he said. He asks voters walking out of the polling places if they’ve had any problems inside. People are “very forthcoming,” and most places ran very smoothly.
Vitali heaped praise on the election workers inside the polls. He goes and introduces himself before the polls open just so they know who he is and what he’s doing. “I can’t stress enough” that these workers have adapted so well on the fly. They’ve had to adapt to longer hours because turnout has been so huge, Vitali said, and “were so fantastic with elderly and disabled voters that (I was) actually proud to be part of democracy.”
We stopped into Tampa offices, Daytona Beach offices, and ultimately several Panhandle offices in the waning days of the campaign. In Tampa, at the Republican Party of Florida Headquarters, we met volunteer Joyce Thompson, age “we’ll call it 50.” Thompson, who was already working for a local county commissioner, was convinced by a friend to help on the campaign after Sarah Palin came through Clearwater.
Originally intending to go to the Palin rally to enjoy herself, she “was volunteered” to sign up other volunteers for work shifts. “We got great responses,” she said. Over 375 volunteers were recruited that day, and close to 200 at the subsequent Palin event in the area on a Sunday morning when not as many volunteers were available to recruit other volunteers.
“Volunteerism is the crux of the whole campaign,” Thompson said, and indeed in this office we arrived at 8:00 pm to find nine phonebankers. They were busy dialing independents and persuadable Dems, according to Thompson. Her local campaign in strong shape, she really wanted to put in some hours in the office, where she had been going nonstop since noon. She helped with postcards to be mailed to voters, as well as helped manage a group of women putting together 800 walk packets. The RPOF Hillsborough office was as busy as any office we’d seen on the Republican side.
In Daytona Beach, where we found the Republican office closed and locked by 7:00 pm, the Democrats were busy, at the halfway point of the day’s work. Trains of volunteers and organizers shuttled through the doors, preparing staging locations, prepping turf, and answering phone calls from voters with voting questions as late as 10 pm when we left. We hadn’t planned to go all the way to Grayton Beach that night because we were exhausted, but the intensity of the effort in the Daytona Beach office inspired us. As with all Obama offices we’ve seen, there is an infectious, optimistic energy that feeds those present, and I drove until past 4 am with a clear eye after the Daytona Beach jolt.
In the Panhandle, the effort on the Democratic side was consistent. Sylvia Alf has been working on campaigns “all my life.” Indeed she has. “My first campaign job was in 1943 as a three-year-old handing out the cards of candidates at polling places under the watchful eyes of my parents.” Alf is thrilled about Barack Obama. “I’ve made so many calls I suspect that I’m developing a cauliflower ear.”
First time volunteers Susan and Buz Livingston note the difference in Democratic efforts in the Panhandle. “Are you kidding me? The difference between the Obama and Gore/Kerry campaigns is the difference between high-speed internet and dial-up,” Susan said.
There was no way residential construction worker Dennis Kimbrell was going to let this chance pass him up. “There was no way I was going to sit on the sidelines this time,” he said. “I am a southern white male, I belong to the club, so people do not hesitate to say things to me,” he told us. “I have heard all the racial epithets, even in my own family. I have been told by people that do not agree with even one McCain position that they are voting for the ‘Patriot,’ not ‘that damned Muslim.'”
Still, Kimbrell works even harder when he hears those things, giving full-time volunteer hours to the campaign. “The most satisfying the thing for me is I have talked with a lot of people that say things like, ‘Thanks for taking the time to call and inform me of these things,’ ‘I had not heard this or thought of that,’ or my favorite ‘you have convinced me to vote for Obama.'”
You can’t get that effectiveness from robocalls.
Alf explained her feelings about this election as well as anyone we’ve encountered. “I truly believe that the example of how Obama has lived his life, what he has learned, his many years of grass roots activism to improve the lives of people, how he has coped with racism and being the “outsider” connect to the countless layers of American society. In-group and Out-group designations are alive. Obama speaks to them because he has lived it; the living-of-it gives him the right to talk about inclusiveness. He personifies hope for a better future for our fractured and hurting country.”
We’ll have one final report from Georgia later on.