On the Front Line for Obama: My Adventures Registering Voters in Florida

As an Obama supporter living in Brooklyn, I sometimes feel useless. Even with Romney's recent surge, surely the President has New York in bag. Fortunately, my wife and I have a second home in Sarasota, Fla. That's where the action is. Florida's Republican-controlled state government has been in the forefront of a nationwide GOP campaign to restrict voting rights. Florida launched an effort to purge its voter rolls on non-citizens and tried, until blocked by a federal judge, to restrict voter-registration drives. So I flew down to Sarasota for eight days of hard work registering voters before the registration deadline on October 9.

Sarasota is a surprisingly diverse city. Republicans make up the majority of voters in this coastal paradise, and many of them are extremely wealthy (Romney's base). But there are also loads of progressive, artsy types in the city's thriving downtown cultural community and plenty of African-Americans in the poorer section just north of downtown. While Obama may not carry Sarasota County, every vote he gets there could help him win Florida's crucial 29 electoral votes.

I worked for the generic-sounding Organizing for America (OFA), but many people know that it is, in effect, the field operation for the Obama campaign. I was given strict rules for registering voters. I had to help register or help update the registrations of all comers -- Democrats, Republicans or none of the above. OFA was given numbered registration forms by the Supervisor of Elections, and every numbered form had to be returned. No missing numbers allowed; we couldn't tear up the forms of voters who identified themselves as Republicans. Unlike the GOP, our side thinks that the more people who vote, the better our candidate's chances are.

Of course, we were free to approach people and register voters where we wanted to. We didn't hang out at country clubs and gated communities. We went to libraries, parks, cheap restaurants, bus depots -- the places frequented by working people. Even though voters didn't have to declare a party on the registration form, many did, and I would guess that I registered at least twice as many Obama voters as Romney voters -- and one young man who seemed to want to write in Ron Paul.

Before describing some of my adventures in detail, I'll mention two general themes of my week that astonished me. First, I met large numbers of convicted felons, both black and white. And they weren't shy about it. "I can't vote because I'm a felon," I heard over and over again. Florida has made it abundantly clear to its felons that they can't vote. I spent a lot of time giving felons info on how they can get their rights restored, which takes at least five years after they serve their sentence. I didn't ask, but many of the felonies were probably drug-related. Some people think that tough drug laws are the new Jim Crow laws, designed to suppress the black vote. Maybe so, but that's a big topic for another story.

Second, many people simply refused to register, often because they think both parties are corrupt. I agree with that, but it's no excuse for not voting. I spent 15 minutes trying to persuade one young couple that it was their civic duty to pick the lesser of two evils. "No," they said, "we're waiting for the revolution to come." I always knew there was widespread public apathy when it comes to voting. I didn't realize there was so much outright hostility toward voting and the whole political system.

Now for some of my close encounters with Floridians. The first day my supervisor sent me to the Selby Public Library in downtown Sarasota and said that if things got slow, I could wander around the neighborhood. It was slow all right, so at lunchtime I went over to Starbucks. I knew enough not to disturb patrons at tables, but I stood outside the door, asking people if they were registered. Soon a guy said he had moved in from another state and needed to register. He checked the Republican Party box. So my first accomplishment in my mission to Florida was to help a Republican vote. Damn! I'm glad that turned out to be the exception rather than the rule.

I had good success alternating between the library and Starbucks until the second day. A guy who was not even going into Starbucks came up to me and said, contemptuously, "What choice do I have, a Mormon or a Muslim?" "Obama's not a Muslim," I replied. He just shook his head and walked away. In what was clearly a bad move, I got irritated and yelled after him, "You need to get some facts instead of believing bulls--t from the Internet." Uh oh. He wheeled around, came back and said, "You're a Democrat, aren't you? You're in trouble now." He stalked into Starbucks and soon emerged smiling, without any coffee in his hand. Pretty soon one of the baristas came out and told me I had to scram. "We've had complaints," she said. "No," I countered, "you had one complaint from a guy who wasn't even a customer." "We've had several complaints," she insisted. Gee, I thought Starbucks was a progressive company that would support good causes, like non-partisan voter registration, but apparently not if it annoys any customers or passersby, no matter how lame-brained they might be.

Expelled from Starbucks, I decided to try a nearby Whole Foods but figured I'd better talk to the manager first. No can do, he said. "It's against company policy, and if I let you do what you want to do, I have to let everybody do stuff." No, I thought, you can use some judgment and make an exception for something as fundamental and important as voter registration. But I knew it would be a waste of time to argue with him. I had thought Whole Foods was progressive too. You know, organic food and all that. But a big sign I saw outside made clear that nothing could be allowed to impede business for even a second. "Whole Foods believes that its customers have the right to shop without interference from any source. Therefore all solicitations, canvassing, distribution of literature, demonstrations, picketing or any other similar activities, for whatever reason, are prohibited. This prohibition extends to our store and the sidewalks and parking lots adjacent to the store. We want shopping at Whole Foods Market to be a pleasurable experience for all our customers. Thank you." Even customers who can't be bothered to be asked the simple question, "Are you registered to vote?" If they objected, all they had to do was walk silently past me. I wasn't going to tackle anybody.

What a contrast to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where you can't walk down the street without being asked to give blood, adopt a stray cat or join Greenpeace. But Brooklynites aren't offended by other people trying to do something good. There's a Whole Foods going up near my house. We'll see if they try to keep Greenpeace out of the parking lot.

Businesses don't have to act this way, even in Sarasota. In fact, many don't. I'd like to offer a big thank-you to the Checkers on Ringling Boulevard, the IHOP on 12th Street and the Popeyes on Route 301, all of which let me talk freely to customers and register them if they wanted it. These eateries may have regressive, non-organic burgers, pancakes and fried chicken, but they have progressive attitudes toward voter registration. Their managers and employees are not corporate automatons. Here's another difference: Checkers, IHOP and Popeyes cater to working-class people, not well-off, can't-be-bothered folks who can afford Starbucks and Whole Foods prices. I guess it was pretty dumb of me to go to Starbucks and Whole Foods in the first place.

On the days when I was lucky enough to be assigned to the library, it proved to be the best spot to register people. A library employee told me my work was "important" and showed me where to stand outside the main entrance. But even there I was briefly under siege. One day a lady came out to confront me. She was platinum-blond and looked like a society-dame type. I don't know whether she was a library employee or, more likely, a part-time volunteer. She demanded to know whom I was working for, and when I told her, she said, "That's not right. You're registering only Democrats." I tried to explain that she was wrong, but she huffed and went back into the library.

When she was leaving at the end of the day, I accosted her and said, "You leveled a false accusation at me without giving me a chance to respond." I pointed out that I was registering people of all parties. "Then why are you doing it?" she asked. "To get more people to vote," I replied. Hurrying away, she snapped, "I don't want to talk to you."

I felt vindicated the next day during the one really funny moment of my week. I was assigned to stand outside the Sarasota County Judicial Center, adjacent to the Terrace Building, which houses several county offices, including the Tax Collector and the Supervisor of Elections. I was flitting from one building to the other, wherever I spotted someone going in or out. At one point I approached a well-dressed woman entering the Terrace Building. "Are you registered to vote?" I asked. "Yes I am," she answered emphatically. I smiled and said, "You probably work for the Supervisor of Elections." "I am the Supervisor of Elections," she replied. She asked whom I was working for. I told her and nervously explained that we were following all the rules and registering all comers. Her response: "We appreciate your help in getting people registered." Yeah! Take that, library society dame!

Later, back at the Obama office, I told another volunteer that I had asked the Supervisor of Elections if she was registered to vote and that she thanked me for my work. My co-worker chuckled, but took a cynical view of the episode. "You talked to Kathy Dent!" she exclaimed. "She's a staunch Republican. She was just saying the right thing."

That may be true. Certainly Dent, who took flak last spring for reducing the number of polling places in the county, wouldn't want to open herself up to fresh criticism from the Obama campaign. But I choose to take Dent at her word and accept her appreciation. I need to grasp at any optimistic straw I can find. I want to believe that even in Sarasota, the Supervisor of Elections is not trying to suppress the vote. In any case, Kathy Dent was one of the nicer people I met during my week in the trenches of Florida politics.