Personal Voices: Staying up Late to Vote Early

A few weeks ago I got a call from Tallahassee League organizer Mario Yedidia. “Adrienne,” he said, “We’re doing something amazing down here – you have to come.”

“OK,” I said. “I’m there.”

Mario was inviting me to support the release of the Tallahassee League’s Voter Guide at the Camp Out for Change, an overnight event marking the first day of early voting in Florida.

When I got off the plane in Tallahassee I was shuttled to Florida State University, where John Edwards started the evening off with a speech – it was like the vice presidential debate with audience participation and no Cheney. We who were camping out that night got passes to a little standing-room-only pit in the front. We felt all badass till we noticed that the true VIPs were sitting in bleacher seats right behind the stage. But then again, they had to act cheesy for the cameras and we could keep up our cynical front.

When John arrived he was shorter than we all expected, but almost as cute as he looks on television. The genuine feeling of being connected to something greater than ourselves was only slightly cheapened by the distribution of little flags and pre-made signs that spoke to our love of the John-Johns.

For those who haven’t met him, Edwards has a great non-threatening look, soft hands (yes mom, I touched him!), and more importantly, an ability to seem like a genuine opposition to the man many Floridians feel personally disenfranchised them in 2000. Knowing that, everyone who spoke before him spoke of the importance of making each vote count.

There was also a rowdy group of Students for Kerry/Edwards who went face to face with Bush supporters out front. It felt like stepping right into a headline article. I stopped one young woman with an “I Heart Bush” sign and asked her why?

She yelled, “Four more years!”

So much for dialogue.

The next morning Jesse Jackson would come and compare us to young folks sitting in for civil rights for black citizens during his youth. He was much more genuine and soft spoken than any of us expected, nothing like the verbose figurehead I’d come to expect. There in the clear, cool morning air Jesse spoke of his days with Martin, and how this early vote, particularly for the young students of the historically black college Florida A&M University, was an act of resistance, was a way of picking up the work of his generation. He didn’t say a word about Kerry – that really wasn’t the point of this gathering and we all knew it.

But John and Jesse were bookends – in between is the real story.

After Edwards, mad young folk gathered at a Plaza in downtown Tallahassee, where sponsoring organizations had set up tables and a concert area. A local DJ was spinning, "Fahrenheit 9/11" was showing on an outside screen, a tent was set up with donated food, and on one side – in true good college organizing fashion – there was a bar! Sprinkled here and there were also sleeping tents that hinted at the point of the evening. We planned to be there till the polls opened Monday morning.

In my work for the League of Pissed Off Voters, I’m working to create voting blocs across the country. We understand that our goal fundamentally changes the nature of voting. But that’s the point: voting has to change. Democracy won’t survive if voting remains an anonymous act in a national popularity contest. Punching a ballot is just one part of counting yourself among those who wish for a better world.

That feeling was evident as young people representing dozens of organizations in Tallahassee, including the Florida Democrats, Students for Kerry, a Cobb supporter, the Young Voter Alliance, the AKAs, the Deltas, the Qs, the Nappyheads and more came over to sign up for our voter bloc.

The performances opened with a local jam band, which was followed by various Greek groups who got up and gave step shows that focused on getting out the vote. A number of organizers – including myself – spoke of the work that starts Nov. 3, regardless of who wins. The Nappyheads then gave an amazing performance, nine of them sharing three mikes and getting the entire audience to sing along to an a cappella version of their local hit “Robbery.” Three young poets took the mike to talk about the state of America – one young black man’s poem centered around the theme that “This is the day to take back our power” in a poem called “Not Tomorrow.”

The Florida Democratic Party, who fronted the bill for much of the evening, made sure everyone had tents and sleeping bags. The Young Voter Alliance made sure everyone had matching armbands that told people to vote Nov. 2 – or before, as was the case in Florida.

There were about 40 of us committed to stay for the night. When we were informed that the Tallahassee police department didn’t accept our permits to sleep in the plaza, there was no hesitation – we were going to the courthouse. It was a few blocks away, but that was where the voting would start at 8:30am and that’s where we aimed to be. We hustled to pack up our tables and bags and, holding our tents aloft, started marching.

This was a turning point in the evening. CNN wasn’t there, neither as NBC. It was just us, looking each other in the eye, laughing and documenting one another’s experiences. Our spirits had to be high – we had a long night ahead of us.

When we got to the courthouse, a group of five Bush supporters were sitting in front. Our initial instinct was to set up in front of them, but maturity and strategy got the better of us – we went around to the side, where the voters would actually enter in the morning. We set up our tents and our movie screen. It was a warm night, warmer I’m told than the previous two nights. And thank goodness – it helps when historic moments can take place in T-shirts.

Several young black women negotiated with the police, who didn’t want us there. We won. At 5 a.m., a security guard came and tried to make us move off the grass. You ever tried to move righteous campers from soft grass to hard concrete in the middle of the night? We stayed in our tents while two young men posted themselves outside with their arms across their chests, not to be moved.

The organizer who shared my tent, LeAndra, was turned away from the polls in 2000 and hadn’t felt she had enough power to fight back. This year, she sat next to me and said, “This is my grass. I’m not moving.” We won again.

When the polls opened, folks were lined up rubbing their eyes, stretching and smiling at each other, clapping every few minutes. Jesse came through for his press conference. Mothers with their kids, people on their way to work came over to join us.

A girl named Christina had painted her jeans with the word VOTE, she had on buttons and stickers and a wristband and was first in line. When asked why she’d voted early, Christina responded, “This way, if there’s any drama I will have a second chance. If you wait till Nov. 2, there’s no second chance.”

The Students for Kerry held up signs and shouted “Kerry, Kerry!” to the cars driving by. But most of the night’s participants weren’t out there yelling for Kerry. This isn’t about Kerry for most of us. It’s about not only being present and being counted, but being first. It isn’t about the big names that leave early or show up late – it’s about the young, hopeful faces peering at one another from their tents all night, then handing each other orange juice at dawn. It’s not about wishing things were different – it’s about winning change.

After all who were eligible had voted, we packed up the tents, picked up the litter and made our tired way home. My host LeAndra was too tired to park straight and her neighbors came out to clown her. She told them she’d been out voting all night.


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