Florida: Making Voters’ Voices Heard

While working with the Obama campaign in the swing state Florida, Miranda Margowsky realized that poor voting conditions won’t stop passionate voters.

It was 5am when I pulled into the parking lot of an early voting site in Miami for the first day of early voting. There were already 30 people in line outside of the library, huddled inside blankets and clutching thermoses of coffee. There were families, toddlers, and a lot of lawn chairs.

They were the first Florida voters to cast their ballots at the polls for the 2012 general election. In previous years, early voting had been allotted two full weeks, including two Sunday voting days that were all-important to the African-American community who’s church-going population rallied the community to the polls after morning services. In this year’s election, Republican Governor Rick Scott had reduced early voting to seven days, invalidating one of those crucial Sunday voting days. Floridians faced a denser, less flexible voting period and an earlier 7pm poll closing time. For working people, the elderly, and those without a means of transportation, these factors made it especially difficult and discouraging for them to cast their ballots.

For me, a field organizer with the Obama campaign, this was a chaotic time. While there is no such thing as normal when working on the campaign, these crucial days of early voting were especially trying. For the past couple of months, my responsibilities had revolved around recruiting volunteers, holding trainings and events, and desperately trying to cultivate leaders amongst volunteers while inspiring them to become active in their neighborhoods. I now had the added responsibility of monitoring the early voting site in my neighborhood.

On the first day of early voting, there were over 600 people in line at my neighborhood’s polling place. My team had set up a table towards the head of the line and were handing out coffee and sample ballots. As the sun began to rise, the line became longer until finally it wrapped around three sides of the parking lot. By 9am, there were over 500 people line and the wait to vote had extended to at least three hours per person. The sun was beginning to approach the noonday peak and people had started to complain about the heat.

By now, we had given out all the coffee and were running low on sample ballots. As I walked down the line of voters to assess the situation, I was aghast to see the line continue on and on and on. I saw families with toddlers, elderly people sitting in chairs they had brought, and groups of young people. Reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood, almost 100 percent of the faces I saw were African or Caribbean-American. Without any more sample ballots, I began to circle back to the front of the line, asking voters who had already read the one they received to share with their neighbors. When reinforcements came, I handed out bottles of water and Obama-Biden stickers, starting at the back of the line where voters were more likely to become discouraged and leave.

It seemed like the citizens of Miami-Dade were voting in spite of their local government rather than because of it. In Florida, voters fill out a paper ballot that then must be scanned and submitted electronically. Over the first few days of early voting, there were allegedly only four electronic scanning machines in operation at the early voting site in my neighborhood. That, coupled with a six-page ballot filled with half a dozen constitutional amendments, dramatically slowed the voting process. Every morning over the next six days, I would make a stop at the early voting site to monitor the situation and send a line count and picture to my supervisor. Without fail, there were always at least 100 people in line by 7am and the numbers swelled throughout the day. The peak came on the last day of early voting, when over 1000 people lined up and some waited more than eight hours to vote.

What I saw at the early voting site during those seven days stayed with me more than anything else I witnessed during the campaign. The news media had been talking for months about the high levels of voter apathy during this campaign and had alleged that interest and participation could never reach the heights of the near-mythical 2008 campaign. Even within the campaign itself, we as organizers had struggled to build a team of volunteers and activate them as potential leaders. Working in Miami felt like wringing water from stones at some points.

But the dedication I saw in the early voting lines erased all that. All of the effort my team and fellow organizers put into registering voters, recruiting volunteers, making phone calls, and knocking on doors paid off during early voting. Almost every voter who joined the line stayed in line and demonstrated a determination to cast his or her vote no matter the obstacles. While there is no doubt that voting conditions of this kind cannot and should not be tolerated in this country, this voting cycle demonstrated that the voters of Miami-Dade County will not stop at anything to let their voices be heard.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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