Notes from the Sunshine State Battleground

F. Timothy Martin Oct 27, 2008

By F. Timothy Martin

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. – A light drizzle was falling on Friday, Oct. 24, but that didn’t seem to deter the 100 or so people lined up at any given time to vote early for the presidential election. I waited roughly one hour to vote today at the downtown polling station in St. Petersburg, the largest city in Florida’s densest county.

When it came my turn, I was able to fill out a ballot. Others were less fortunate. I saw at least three newly registered voters turned away at the poll because their names were not on the registration list.

One 47-year-old man told me that he was so inspired by Barack Obama that he was preparing to vote for the first time ever in an election. It was heartbreaking to watch election workers ignore his protestations and turn him away after he had enthusiastically waited in line for so long.

Many here have criticized the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, Deborah Clark, as being responsible for the long waits and irregularities. Clark, considered a partisan Republican, decided to open only three early voting locations countywide. That’s down from seven locations in 2004, despite more interest in early voting. Early voters tend to vote Democratic here, and will likely skew even more toward Democrats given Barack Obama’s visit to neighboring Tampa on Monday, Oct. 20, where he emphasized the importance of voting early in this election.

Clark’s decision to scale back the number of polling stations was blasted in an editorial by the major local daily, The St. Petersburg Times, which had ironically just endorsed her for reelection.

If my experience at the polling station today is any indication, then new voter registrations may be at risk here. Since completing a strong registration drive in October, Democrats now outnumber Republicans 250,000 to 238,000 in Pinellas. That’s a dramatic reversal from just a few months ago. The question is, how many additional registration forms went unprocessed?

Despite the speed bumps laid out for early voters, the Obama campaign seems far better organized down here than John McCain’s campaign. Volunteers are pouring in from around the country, and at any given moment the Obama and Pinellas County Democratic offices in St. Petersburg are full of people who don’t look like they’ve spent much time in a campaign office before. Most are looking to pick up a lawn sign or Obama t-shirt, but others are there to volunteer and donate money. As a volunteer in the county Democratic headquarters office, I’ve personally accepted checks for the Obama campaign from a half dozen registered Republicans in just a two-day period.

In one of the most important metro areas of the most important battleground state, the Obama campaign is outflanking its opponent in the volunteer effort: phone banking, door-to-door campaigning, voter registration and merchandising.  People seem to be coalescing around volunteer work, a direct contrast to the consultant-led offices of local Republicans.

Both presidential candidates and vice presidential candidates have visited here this month. Sarah Palin’s visit to Republican-heavy Clearwater on the north side of the county saw an introduction by a county sheriff in full uniform, who snidely referred to “Barack Hussein Obama,” and a supporter yell “kill him” in a reference to Obama. But with one of the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the nation, Pinellas County is not a fertile ground for that kind of partisan rancor.

All of this works to Obama’s favor. If the election here is run fairly, he should win Florida by a comfortable margin. But even with the scrapping of electronic voting machines in favor of optical scanning units and greater voting rights for convicted felons, residents here still live in the shadow of the 2000 election. They have reason to remain cynical.

F. Timothy Martin is a freelance writer residing in Tampa Bay, Florida.

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