As the St. John Progressive Missionary Baptist Church vans pulled up to the C. Blythe Andrews library polling place to let congregants out to vote, a line already snaked out the voting entrance. A table was set up on one end of the libary’s parking lot where volunteers served fried fish and hush puppies. A DJ blared gospel music that could be heard blocks away. It was after-church Sunday, the first and only Sunday of "Souls to the Polls" in most of Florida, and the second day of early voting. Here in Tampa, early voters, and black voters in particular had already made their statement.
Despite setbacks such as Gov. Rick Scott’s HB 1355, which undercut voter registration drives, reinstated harsh felony voting restrictions and his notorious purge program, voters turned out in record numbers this past weekend: over a half-million people cast early votes statewide by Monday morning. In Hillsborough County, 36,702 early votes Saturday and Sunday–roughly 2,500 of those cast at the C. Blythe Andrews site in Tampa’s historically black College Hill neighborhood. As of last night, over 55,000 voted early.
These numbers far outweighed the historic 2008 election here, when less than 17,000 turned out for the first weekend of early voting, 1,248 at Andrews (then called College Hill Library). Back then, those were considered remarkable numbers. This year, they’ve almost doubled that, despite the odds against them.
After dismal voter turnout numbers in 2010, the year Scott was elected, Get Out The Vote advocates re-tooled and put together an aggressive canvassing strategy that made sure people were registered and "knew their status"–making sure their address was updated, and that any felony convictions were cleared up. In 2008, African-American voters were self-motivated, hype about the prospect of not only electing the first black president, but also finally undoing the eight years of economic and political ruin of George W. Bush.
"I don’t think there was a GOTV strategy in 2010," says Belinthia Berry, a political strategist who works with the NAACP and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, who was on hand for the Souls to the Polls outing at Andrews. "This year we really made a conscious effort to actually canvass, knock on doors–people actually know GOTV now, pushing people to vote, as opposed to 2010 when I didn’t even know. Nobody knocked on my door or pushed me to vote."
Yvette Lewis, political action chair of the Hillsborough County NAACP, was also on hand Sunday, passing out voter materials, directing traffic and responding to any voters who needed help. At one point a Haitian church group approached the polling site with about a half-dozen congregants who primarily spoke Creole, their English limited. Lewis immediately stepped in to help them and let them know that they could bring another person to the voting booth to help them with their language challenges, as protected by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.
Lewis was instrumental in securing a list from the state of people with felony convictions who are eligible to have their voting privileges restored. She told me she still continues to help people with that, even unfortunately those who’ve received conflicting voting eligibility information from the county and state, whose voting records are still out of sync.
Despite those problems, she’s seen nothing but long lines of early voters since Saturday, when lines wrapped all around the Andrews library. Local news reports have plead no problems so far, and the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office tells me they received no complaints.
There were a few hiccups Sunday, with strange poll watchers–some authorized, some not–showing up at the Souls’ Polls site trying to cause problems. One watcher tried to challenge a voter over her acceptance of fried fish. Stories vary on what happened, but according to Lewis, a poll watcher–a white woman in a sea of black voters–reported to poll judges that a woman headed to the voting line was bribed with a fish sandwich to vote for Obama.
Another poll watcher, described by Lewis as being a Republican Party-appointed watcher, asked poll judges if they "could stop or slow down" the number of voters entering the library because it was getting crowded. Then one poll watcher tried to interrogate an 11-year-old girl about what all the fish serving and gospel music playing was about. In every case, the watcher was confronted by lawyers from the Election Protection team who were at the site in full force, dozens of lawyers, authorized poll watchers and volunteers from the NAACP, SEIU, Obama for America campaign and the Hillsborough County Democratic Black Caucus. The voters were barely disrupted.
Janee Murphy, the mother of the 11-year-old who one of the Republican poll watchers rolled up on, said media accounts about voter intimidation underestimated the resilience of black voters.
"We are a lot smarter than they think we are," said Murphy, former chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party. "While I do agree with the fact that we need to protect our right to vote, early vote, and vote on Sundays, it’s not just about early voting for us. What is also important to us is to make sure that when we show up and we get in there to vote, that there are enough machines for us, and making sure we know where to vote, and how to go down a ballot. That’s all called GOTV, and where’d that originate? GOTV came from us."
It was clear that GOTV organizing was bearing fruit and that any threats of intimidation were immediately diffused.
News reports from other areas like Ohio also showed no intimidation in play, but erroneously concluded that was because it was never a problem to begin with. That’s a silly if not naive interpretation. If intimidation isn’t showing its face, it’s because a legion of voting rights reporters exposed the plans and intentions of ballot bullies and voter harassment artists like True the Vote and their tea party affiliates. More importantly, having dense teams of Election Protection lawyers on the grounds also have been a huge deterrent. So the point is not that voter intimidation isn’t a threat; the point is that civil rights advocates have organized to make the would-be intimidators look like nobodies.