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Souls to the Polls

The ground game is working in Florida

Last week I walked across the street to ask Miss Vienna if I could go to church with her. Churches all over Florida were organizing events to take faith voters to the polls on Sunday, Oct. 28. I wanted to see what a “Souls to the Polls” event looked like.

In 2008, more than one-third of African-Americans voted on the Sunday before Election Day, which helped President Obama carry Florida. It’s a crucial day for working class voters who may not be able to stand in long lines during the week. This year Florida’s Republican legislators targeted early voting and cut the number of days the polls would be open before Election Day from 14 to eight. The polls will be open on only one Sunday. 

Many consider the new law to be blatant voter suppression, but Gov. Rick Scott justified the move as an effort to prevent voter fraud. According to several studies, including those done by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, the Brennan Center at NYU and even the Bush White House could find only a handful of voter fraud cases in Florida since 2000. 

Vienna is a retired school administrator, a passionate Obama supporter, who recently went to see him at the University of Miami. When I asked her about Souls to the Polls, she hesitated then said that the Baptists and several other black churches organized events.

Vienna is a Jamaican-born immigrant who was one of more than 250,000 people left homeless by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

“I couldn’t tell where the house was,” she says. “If I live to be a 1,000 years old, I will never forget the scene and the smell.” 

Now she lives in a racially diverse community with neighbors who have immigrated from Haiti and Cuba, or moved from elsewhere in the U.S. One family is the second generation to live in the same house. 

During Hurricane Rita in 2005, the roof blew off the house next to Vienna’s. A neighbor watched from his window. He worked against the wind to reach his car, then drove across the street and rescued the elderly couple from their home. After the storm, Vienna sheltered the couple until their roof could be repaired.

“We love each other. We take care of each other. We get along well,” Vienna says. She admires Obama for the same characteristics. “He’s here to help the needy, not the greedy.”

I asked again about Souls to the Polls on Sunday and she politely told me, “I’m a Seventh Day Adventist. I go to church on Saturday.”

I was disappointed, but decided to keep asking. The first volunteer to come in the office was Christina, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, and probably not a good candidate for my request to go to a black church. She works in a nail salon near the Obama office. She asked for a lawn sign while I was opening boxes of supplies and lawn sign wires. 

When I gave her the sign, she looked at my hands and said, “Oh, honey! Paper?”

“Yeah, and cardboard,” I said.

She made me sit down, pulled a small bottle out of her pocket and filled several cuts with something that looked suspiciously like Super Glue. She looked carefully around the office as she worked and asked, “Are we doing OK?”

It’s a tough question to answer, because the national media doesn’t take the time to explain how the ground game works and, in my opinion, that is where an election is won or lost. I explain to Christina that, according to the Florida Division of Elections, the Obama campaign registered six new voters for every one new voter the Romney campaign registered before the Oct. 9 deadline. It’s a good sign, but still leaves the final outcome in the hands of the more than two million independent voters.

Christina, who is upset that neither candidate is talking enough about education, interrupts my explanation. She’s worried about Hurricane Sandy and the turnout both in Florida and up north. We all are, but even though the polls show Romney leading in several swing states, including Florida, no one is giving up.

When Sunday, Oct. 28, arrived, I was unable to go to church, but I checked in with volunteers in Liberty City and Miami Gardens, who told me that the lines were long and steady. Some voters boarded buses after church, while others marched to the polls. They carried banners, followed a band or drum corps. 

As I write this, the storm warnings for Hurricane Sandy have been canceled for South Florida, but another storm is just beginning to rise as Election Day approaches. More than 1.1 million Floridians have already voted absentee. On Sunday, churches in Miami-Dade County helped to bring more than 22,000 people to the polls, people who know by heart the scripture passage that has gone before every march since the early days of the civil rights movement:

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”