Florida Dems, minorities defied GOP's restrictions to vote
The Republican-majority Legislature may have unwittingly given President Obama a boost with a restrictive election law reportedly targeted at Democratic and minority voters.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Pizza, Popsicles and port-a-potties may have helped secure the decisive win for President Obama and other Democrats in Florida.
Obama's data-driven campaign machine and the popular president himself deserve most of the credit.
But the GOP-majority Legislature may have unwittingly given Obama a boost with a restrictive election law reportedly targeted at Democratic and minority voters.
Progressives, left-leaning groups and the NAACP, which did not endorse Obama, rallied in opposition to the law and used it to motivate voters, including blacks for whom restrictions on early voting triggered a generations-old sensitivity to having their vote suppressed.
"Instead of being intimidated because of these laws, people came out because of these laws," said NAACP Senior Vice President for Campaigns Marvin Randolph. "Our community, instead of letting the law slow them down, they decided they would vote harder, vote earlier."
Early voting increased 17 percent in Florida along with Virginia, Ohio and Colorado, states where other voting-law restrictions were passed, Randolph said. "People pushed back. People fought back," he said.
The 2011 law shrank early voting from two weeks to eight days, imposed restrictions on voter-registration groups and forced more Floridians to cast provisional ballots than in previous years. Former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer, former Gov. Charlie Crist and two GOP consultants assert that the law was born of Republicans' frustration about minority and Democratic turnout that led to Obama's success in Florida in 2008, when 54 percent of black voters cast ballots during the early voting period.
But progressives, union organizers and black leaders say the law backfired. They put their organizational skills to work before and during the election.
Once voting began, they used music, food and water to transform waits in line of up to eight hours into celebrations.
In Homestead, undocumented workers who couldn't even vote pitched in with a mariachi band and barbecue, said Florida New Majority Executive Director Gihan Perera.
In Collier County, voters got in their cars and turned on their headlights for voters waiting in the dark to get into an early polling site.
State Sen. Gwen Margolis ordered pizza for voters waiting for hours at a Brickell Avenue precinct in Miami.
And union workers handed out water along with potato chips and power bars.
Some black voters saw a four- to six-hour wait to vote as a badge of courage, responding with a "we're going to show them" attitude, said Democratic strategist and Obama campaign Florida adviser Steve Schale.
"It didn't seem to have the impact of suppressing the vote as much as it had the impact of empowering people," he said.
The NAACP was one of dozens of organizations that, like many candidates, used Twitter, text messages and Facebook to encourage voters and give them updates on wait times at specific precincts. On Election Day, the NAACP tweeted a telephone number for voters who needed rides in Miami-Dade County.
"It is imperative that we remain in line to vote. We know the wait is long and you're tired but democracy is worth it. #stayinline," advised an NAACP Election Day tweet.
But something more organic took place. Instant communities were created, the organizers all agreed.
"You felt it. People knew there was more to this law. There were very clear intentions behind the law. And Floridians were going to stand up and say, 'Enough.' And that's what we saw on Election Day," said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic campaign consultant who tended to hungry and thirsty voters in hours-long lines in South and Central Florida during early voting and on Nov. 6.
It was Ulvert who made a spur-of-the-moment run to Publix on Nov. 3, the last day of early voting, in Orlando. Hundreds of people were lined up to vote at a library branch on a sweltering day, Ulvert said. Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith handed out the Popsicles and water.
Many Floridians were aware that the national spotlight was once again on Florida, reviving the specter of the 2000 presidential election and for many blacks, a long and ugly history of voter suppression.
Many black pastors urged congregations to vote in defiance of the new laws.
"Voter suppression is not something that is new to our community and neither is our reaction," said the NAACP's Randolph. "If you look back to the civil-rights movement, we passed the hat around and raised money to pay the poll taxes. And there were literacy tests. We educated our community to be able to say whatever you had to say to pass those literacy tests. Just as we did this time, we educated."
Organizers and minority voters in Florida "knew that people were looking at Florida and other states in the same way people were looking at Mississippi in 1967," Perera said.
More than 900 people stood in line just minutes before the 7 p.m. cutoff at the library in North Miami on the last day of early voting. The parking lot at the library was full, and cars were parked all along the streets and lawns of homes nearby, Perera said.
At 6:58 p.m., Heather Hughes drove by the line after a futile search for a parking space. A poll worker, sent out to mark the end of the line at the 7 p.m. cutoff time, shrugged when she asked for help, Perera said.
"Everyone was looking at her and wanted to do something. I walked over to her car. And basically we looked at each other. She jumped out of the car. I jumped in her car. And she went and got in line and I drove off in her car," Perera recalled.