I dropped off my ballot at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office in St. Petersburg around lunchtime Monday – the first day of early voting – investigated a Biden-Harris outpost offering bumper stickers, granola bars and water and watched as a couple of men campaigned for Anna Paulina Luna, the Republican candidate attempting to unseat U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.
It was impossible to miss the forest of campaign signs. Most impressive, though, was the show of democracy as people resolutely waited to cast their votes in person or hand carry mail-in ballots for safe deposit in the official ballot box.
One wonders how many might have been thinking about nations where elections are routinely rigged, or where unrest is a certainty after disputed results. Those might well have been more than passing thoughts for some voters, given current threats, accusations of voter suppression and intimidation, suspicion of foreign and domestic interference and a general sense of unease that permeate this year’s election. All that, and an unrelenting pandemic, too.
One thing seems clear, Floridians are turning out to vote in record numbers. In St. Petersburg, a concerted get-out-the-vote effort has been launched by the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum and other organizations. Terri Lipsey Scott, the museum’s executive director, is expecting a large, enthusiastic showing for Saturday’s “Roll to the Polls” at Tropicana Field, where voters will be able to drop off their mail-in ballots at an official Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections site. More than 60 organizations, including the League of Women Voters, Pinellas County Urban League, Women Talk Black, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Tampa Bay Rays, sororities, fraternities, churches, social and civic groups, are involved.
“Voting is our voice,” is the urgent nudge.
“It is just extremely important to us that nobody be deterred from voting and that they are able to safely cast their ballots,” Scott said.
But Karen Sherman of VoteRiders Tampa Bay is concerned about those who simply can’t vote because they lack an official ID. She and fellow volunteer Joe Guido head VoteRiders, which is a nonpartisan group working to help Pinellas County residents acquire the coveted IDs.
“It’s incredibly rewarding. Every door closes in their face when they don’t have it,” Sherman said.
“Voter ID laws silence millions of Americans,” the national VoteRiders organization says.
For those who can vote, Saturday’s Roll to the Polls is meant to be a rallying call to do so. In pre-coronavirus days, Souls to the Polls was the highly publicized event organized to help get out the vote.
“We would congregate and have a mass picnic at Williams Park and march from Williams Park to the Supervisor of Elections Office to cast our vote,” Scott said, emphasizing that the focus this pandemic year is on helping people to be able to vote safely.
“We are directing people to the Trop. It is the only drive-through location in St. Petersburg. They just drive through and deposit their ballot,” she said. “We will not be deterred. We will not be distracted. Roll with us, on bicycles, or motorcycles, on skates …We don’t care how you roll. We want you to come roll with us and be part of this process. We are asking parents to bring their children.”
Staging for the event will begin at noon, with the parade rolling off at 1:30 p.m. from Lot 4, at Tropicana Field. Even those who have already voted are being encouraged to attend.
A second Roll to the Polls is planned for Oct. 31. The rallies are meant to honor the legacies of the late Congressman John Lewis, the Civil Rights hero who was relentless in his fight for voting rights, and a progressive icon and feminist hero, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“VoteRiders takes its name from the Freedom Riders, so in every way, it is inspired by Congressman John Lewis and everything he stood for,” Sherman said.
She had been concerned about citizens being unable to exercise their right to vote long before the January launch of VoteRiders Tampa Bay, Sherman said.
“So many states, Florida included, require an ID to vote in person,” she said. “Not everyone can get an ID easily. For some people, the obstacles are really insurmountable without help. We are really happy when we can help somebody. It’s about voting and it’s about everything else, as well. It’s about being a full and complete member of society.”
VoteRiders, which needs more volunteers, partners with social service agencies such as the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Metro Inclusive Health and Pinellas Hope to get word out about their work. News also spreads by word of mouth.
Money often is a key obstacle in the quest for an ID, Sherman said, adding that navigating the logistics of acquiring documentation such as birth and marriage certificates also can be daunting.
Those the group helps don’t fall into a particular demographic group, but are usually down on their luck. “It’s kind of across the board. It really is everybody. Age-wise, it’s seniors, kids aged out of foster care. It’s really everybody,” Sherman said. “Some people we work with are so excited that they are able to vote.”
Expect VoteRiders to continue its work even when this interminable election season is over.
Monday, before I dropped off my ballot, I checked to make sure that my signature matched the one the Supervisor of Elections Office has on record. A bit of paranoia? Perhaps. But in this current climate, why take chances? Hyperbole or not, this may well be the most momentous election of our lifetimes.
For more information
Roll to the Polls: woodsonmuseum.org/roll-to-the-polls-2020/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
VoteRiders: Call (727) 304-5674