I went to Florida before the 2004 election because I wanted to play a part--to try to assure electoral justice. I had the opportunity to bear witness to four days of the early voting process in the heart of the African-American community in Tampa. Spending almost two weeks there, I had hoped I would get to canvass some interesting neighborhoods, serve as a nonpartisan poll monitor on election day and meet some great people. What I did not expect, however, was a personal transformation.
On the morning of Thursday, October 28, a young woman from San Francisco and I arrived to volunteer outside of Tampa's College Hill Library with 20 cases of bottled water and $20 worth of peanut butter and cheese crackers. Our charge from the Kerry/Edwards campaign was to hand out water and snacks to people who were lined up outside this early polling place standing in the hot sun. The goal was simple--help make this arduous voting process a little more bearable so that people would continue to stay in line to vote, rather than give up.
It quickly became apparent that our modest supplies, while much appreciated, were totally inadequate. The one-and-a-half-hour wait to vote on Thursday quickly stretched to three hours, then four, then over six hours on Saturday and Monday. People who were in line when the early voting polls closed at 6 p.m. on Monday did not leave until after midnight, the last person receiving their voting card at 30 seconds before midnight, after which time their wait would have been in vain.
My experience as a Northern white woman whose longest wait at the polls has probably been about 15 minutes did not prepare me for the separate and very unequal voting process condoned by state law and the rules of county election supervisors which I encountered in Florida. If you live in a predominantly black part of Tampa, you have to work a lot harder to vote than someone in Boise. What I saw was institutionalized racism. It says a lot about my naiveté that I was shocked.
When the early voting polls opened on October 18, College Hill Library had been allocated one voting machine. Through the efforts of a dedicated young volunteer lawyer from Washington, D.C., neighborhood election officials and state representatives from the College Hill area, that number was gradually increased to three machines, then five. Finally on Friday, after the polls had closed and the average wait had been over four hours, county election officials brought in two more machines. Hundreds of machines still sat in storage waiting to be brought out on election day.
Discovering the injustice of the electoral system made me angry; seeing the determination of an entire community to exercise their right to vote, in spite of major obstacles, moved me to tears. Here are some of the lessons I learned at College Hill:
PATIENCE: The lines were incredibly long. On Saturday and Monday, average waits ranged from five to seven hours. I never heard a single complaint or unpleasant word from those waiting in line--not from children-to-children, not from parents-to-children, not among the hundreds of voters who waited in oppresive heat, not from the obviously overworked and stressed election workers or from the library staff whose entire facility was taken over during this process.
The only unpleasantness I heard regarded the role which I and a couple other volunteers had assumed--the handing out of food and water. Admittedly, when we first arrived, in our zeal, we probably pushed the envelope. Thursday afternoon, after a white man in a suit snapped several photos of me handing out water with a Kerry button on my hat inside the 50-foot area (Florida law prohibits political solicitation within 50 feet of polling places), I took off the button. From that time onward we divided our roles so that those of us within the 50-foot limit were nonpartisan; we wore no campaign paraphernalia and did not mention any candidates or parties.
SOLIDARITY: There seemed to be a generally unspoken agreement among almost everyone in line that all votes--every one--were important, that each vote was in the community's collective interest, all who had gathered at that time and place were part of an historic process.
STRENGTH AND DETERMINATION: I was more than once moved to tears by the sheer tenacity of elderly black voters. I remember one very, very old woman who was accompanied by two of her twenty-something grandchildren. She leaned heavily on them and her walker, taking very slow, very determined steps toward the polls. Her progress was excruciatingly slow, painful and steady. Day after day, very old, sometimes very infirm people showed up to take their place in line--to cast their vote for a future many of them will not live to see.
There were many people from nursing homes. I accompanied one woman in her bedroom slippers, a stroke victim. Each step was a struggle. When she finally arrived at the polls she had to writer her name, birth date and signature, despite being registered. Each letter took great effort. I was allowed to accompany her to the electronic computer screen because she had never used a touch screen before and had severe motor impairment. When she arrived at the computer she knew what to do: boom for John Kerry. Then boom, boom, boom down the line for Democrats.
Sometimes the lines were just too long. When people did occasionally have to leave the line to go to work or to pick children up at day care, we would always remind them to be sure to come back and vote. One woman responded, "Honey, you don't need to remind ME to vote!" Indeed, there was absolutely nothing we outsiders had to offer except food, water and witness.
TEAM WORK and GENEROSITY: The election officials were incredible. The head election official at College Hill and her deputy, both African-Americans, were genuinely dedicated to expediting voting, no small task when the institutional deck was so stacked against them. The volunteer lawyers worked enormously long hours, much more than any of them had originally intended, because they saw that they were needed. Two journalists from California volunteered not only their time, they also bought food for the crowd. A Tampa native who now lives in Baton Rouge spent long days hauling food and water, handing out supplies and driving volunteers around.
Those who were able to stand long hours encouraged those who could not to cut in front of them. This happened over and over again. Election officials tried to get people inside to wait who had medical problems like diabetes, heart conditions or bad backs, reasons that might make it hard to stand outside for a long time. Sure there were a few jokes about feigned ailments but I never saw anyone try to take undue advantage of this offer. The far more likely response was, "Well, I've got diabetes but I'm OK right now. I don't want to go ahead of folks." Again and again I found people who had come out at considerable risk to their health--just had surgery, severe asthma, heart conditions--who appreciated the chance to rest inside rather than stand in the heat and humidity.
It was a privilege to be totally engaged in a process much larger than any one of us; a process which inoculated me not against profound sadness at the outcome of the election, but against despair.
Anne Stites Hausrath served on the Boise City Council from 1992 to 2002.