Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Politics

League of Women Voters reaches out as registration deadline looms

ST. PETERSBURG

They set up their table at the Central Avenue bus depot. Unfolded an easel to hold their sign. Spread out a tablecloth printed with flags.

The air smelled like exhaust and Popeye's fried chicken. They had to shout over the engines.

"Hey there! Are you all registered to vote? Anyone need to sign up to vote in November?" Raechel Garafalo, 49, called to the crowd.

An elderly woman eating yogurt ignored her. A young woman pushing a stroller with two toddlers shook her head.

"I can't vote," said a man in a Rutgers T-shirt. "I'm an ex-con."

The two volunteers from the League of Women Voters had chosen the bus station Thursday to "reach out to under-represented voters," said Darden Rice, 42, president of the St. Petersburg chapter.

Folks coming through there probably don't have cars to drive to the Supervisor of Elections office to sign themselves up, might not have access to a computer to register online.

"It's important to reach out to people and try to make this process easy," Rice said.

While lawmakers argue about purging voter rolls and law enforcement officers investigate whether a company the Republican Party hired turned in fraudulent applications, the nonpartisan group's volunteers have registered 3,219 new voters.

Tuesday is the last day Florida residents can register to vote in the Nov. 6 election. So all last week, and through the weekend, volunteers carrying clipboards worked crowds at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus and at a job fair. At an outdoor market Saturday morning in St. Petersburg, volunteers registered nine new voters: one Republican, three Democrats and five without affiliation.

"Democracy works best when people of all demographics get to the polls," Rice said.

Many of Florida's 11.4 million voters register when they get their driver's license, or at local elections offices. Others sign up at drives sponsored by political parties and nonpartisan groups. Before the last presidential election, anyone could register new voters.

But in May 2011, a new law required groups conducting voter signups to register with the state. And instead of having 10 days to turn in new registration forms, people had to turn in paperwork within 48 hours or risk fines of up to $1,000.

"It really felt like the state was trying to criminalize the act of registering people to vote," Rice said.

So, for the first time in its 72-year history, the Florida chapter suspended its registration drives — and sued the state.

"We went a whole year without being able to register people," said Jessica Lowe-Minor, the state's executive director. "That's a lot of time wasted."

In May, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction to block the new law. Over the summer, lawyers for the League and state settled and volunteers kicked their signup campaigns into overdrive.

"All of our workers are volunteers; all of our volunteers are trained," Rice said. "They have to pass a quiz to show they know the rules before they can go out there with clipboards."

League volunteers aren't allowed to wear political buttons or shirts, or anything endorsing a candidate. They don't ask people who they're going to vote for, and can't encourage them to pick a particular party. They ask everyone where they live, if they're a U.S. citizen and whether they have been convicted of a felony. Everyone gets a black pen.

"Hey, how you doing? Are you registered to vote?" Garafalo called about 3 p.m. Sweat streamed from beneath her visor. Her water bottle was empty.

She had been at the bus depot for more than an hour and had helped four people fill out forms to change their addresses, given three felons a number to call to try to get their voting rights restored, and registered one man who didn't want to claim a political party.

Just after 4 p.m., an older couple climbed off the bus, saw the League's sign, and headed straight for the flag tablecloth. Tony Doyle, a Vietnam vet, and his wife, Sherry, were returning home from his checkup at the VA hospital.

"Okay," he said to Garafalo. "What do I have to do?"

The Doyles had been married for 32 years — and fought over eight presidential elections. Sherry, 57, voted in every one. Tony, 65, had never registered.

He decided on his own to sign up. His wife didn't have to push him. "I got to help get the right candidate voted in," he said while Garafalo looked over his form. "President Obama, he needs four more years to put in place the things he said he would do."

"Okay, you're all set," Garafalo said, shaking his hand.

The retired Marine smiled. "That was easy."

At 5 p.m., rain was splashing the street and wind whipped the registration sheets off the table. The volunteers decided to hold on a little longer to catch people coming home from work.

A young couple was the last to climb off the 5:45 bus. Her arms were laden with shopping bags. He cradled their month-old daughter. "Hello!" said Garafalo. "Do you all need to register to vote?"

Reina Mangum-Ortiz, 20, is a student at St. Petersburg College. Her fiance, Deontae Jones, 25, manages a Wendy's and is studying to become an engineer. They looked at each other and laughed.

"We were just talking about that, how we had to figure out how to get to the courthouse and go do that tomorrow," said Mangum-Ortiz. "I wasn't old enough to vote for the president last time. And I know people say your vote doesn't matter, but I know it does. I want to make a difference."

She put down her shopping bags and picked up a pen.

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