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In Florida, volunteers wait in vain for election day challenges

November 06, 2012|By Joseph Tanfani
  • Voters line up to turn in their absentee ballots in person at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, in Doral, Fla.
Voters line up to turn in their absentee ballots in person at the Miami-Dade… (Wilfredo Lee / Associated…)

TAMPA -- Rick Smith sat on a folding camp chair under a tree in Ybor City, smoking a cigarette -- ready for a fight that never happened.

Smith, chief of staff for the state local of the SEIU, was one of about 80 volunteers for Election Protection in Hillsborough County Tuesday. Some came from as far away as Northern California to wait outside precincts with large minority populations to advocate for the rights of people to vote. This year, groups such as True the Vote and Tampa Fair Vote had filed challenges to some voters' eligibility, and groups on the left had been fearing an election day nightmare, with voters challenged and lines held up for hours.

But that didn't seem to be happening in Tampa, Miami-Dade or other big Florida counties.

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Smith, wearing black jeans and a black Election Protection shirt, said he hadn't seen any problems on Tuesday at his polling place, at the Allen Temple AME Church on the edge of Tampa's historic Cuban neighborhood. No one showed up to challenge voters on Tuesday, he said, but he says some people did show up during early voting, when lines stretched around the block.

"They just came up and snapped pictures of us, and got back in the van, and said to people, 'The line is four hours; you might as well go home,'" he said. "Real high school stuff."

Melaina Hall, 23, said she was voting for the first time on Tuesday.

"I kept hearing from a lot of people that they weren't going to vote," said Hall, an Obama supporter. "I think they felt he didn't do enough. But I told them, it's a whole lot of stuff coming around if you don't."

The warnings about possible problems at the polls encouraged many Floridians to vote early. By Sunday, about 4.5 million people had already cast ballots; there were about 168,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

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In this county, some 43% of voters had already cast ballots, and on Tuesday most polling places were running fairly smoothly after the morning rush. There were glitches, though, including phones that went down in the election office, voters who were directed to the wrong place and, in neighboring Pinellas County, automated calls from the elections department to 12,000 voters telling them they could turn in their ballots Wednesday -- when it would be too late.

In one busy precinct in a largely African American precinct in East Tampa, lines during early voting stretched for hours last week. But the wait was about 20 minutes  by midday Tuesday. "That was the plan -- get everybody out to vote before election day," said Mike McCoy, a volunteer working for the American Transit Union get-out-the-vote operation.

Outside the polls, a carnival atmosphere prevailed: Workers waving Obama signs changed "Fired up! Ready to go!" Jim Holmes was doing a steady business in Obama T-shirts and hats laid out on the top of his car: "$15 and $35 for the hats, but I'll work with anybody," he said. And James Youngblood, in his big yellow food truck, was still giving out free hot dogs to all: He'd given away 2,000 already, counting the early voting.

"It's all out of my own pocket," he said. "Just trying to give something back."

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Linda Tavis, a Santa Rosa lawyer, said there were several people from California working in Tampa. Some of them met Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he visited Obama's Tampa headquarters last week. Another Election Protection volunteer, Rick Brant, sat on the gate of his pickup and said he hoped things stayed quiet.

"I think there was paranoia on both sides that there would be some kind of shenanigans," he said. "That doesn't mean that someone, somewhere, isn't trying something."

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