Black Orlando voters challenged
Eddie Watkins
November/December 2004

On November 6, 2004 I served as an Election Protection Volunteer in the city of Orlando, Florida. The sickening role of EP is to protect the voting rights of all Americas. I say sickening because the very idea that Americans need their most fundamental right to vote protected is simply unfathomable.

I actually had the phone numbers of lawyers programmed on speed dial in my personal cell phone. What is worse is that I used those numbers 15 times between the hours of 7:00AM and 4:00PM. Most of the calls were made shortly after the polling place opened when I became aware that black voters (and only black voters) were being challenged left and right inside. All after waiting in full-on Florida sun for 3.5 hours.

In the course of 3.5 hours, you can really get to know the people in line. The polls opened at 7:00 and by 7:30 there were over 300 people in line. I can still remember many of the faces, especially those dejected looks of people challenged inside.

My principle role was to talk with voters as they exited the polls to determine if they were allowed to vote. A man that I recognized from earlier in the morning came up to me and said that he was allowed to vote but his friend Tonya was not. I went out to his car in the parking lot and spoke with Tonya about her experience. She, a black woman, was challenged and was told that she had to drive across town to another precinct to vote. Her friend who has lived with her for years in the same house was not challenged and voted without incident. Perhaps the most interesting part of this is that he was white.

It took two lawyers from the Department of Justice, two lawyers from election protection, and the Kerry/Edwards lawyer inside to stop the challenges. The challenger was an 18 year old law student hired by the Bush campaign.

Lines to the polling places were extremely long and elderly and handicapped voters were not allowed to advance to the front of the line. They were told that they could sit in the shade but that they had to remember their place in line. An elderly man in his eighties collapsed after waiting over three hours to vote. His wife, ailing with Parkinson Disease and wearing braces in both legs, was futilely trying to lift him off the floor. I helped him into the air-conditioning where we waited for an ambulance. When he regained consciousness the first thing he said was: "I am not leaving until I vote here." He did vote, 5 hours later after he returned from the hospital.

A diabetic with a 4 year old child waited in line for three hours until she was told that she was in the wrong precinct. She went home and came back that afternoon with her voting registration card. She was in the correct precinct all along. In a similar situation, another voter was sent away and went to three different precincts before returning when it was discovered that she was in the right precinct all along. Poorly trained poll workers contributed to many of the problems of the day. I saw many people simply walk out of the line after a few hours of waiting.

Four years after the fiasco in 2000 and the passage of Help America Vote Act and we are not much better off. What people have to understand in the future is that they have the right to vote and it is exceptionally rare that there is enough evidence to legally challenge someone. The appearance of their name on a list is NOT enough to take that right from them. I told many voters that if they were denied the right the vote to defend themselves and raise hell. If we allow this to continue it is our fault.

Eddie Watkins is a PhD student in tropical plant ecology at the University of Florida.

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