In a Battleground State, Determined Students Waited Hours to Vote

The Chronicle of Higher Education
November 12, 2004, Friday

Tampa, Fla: Students here at the University of South Florida experienced the excitement, bureaucratic wrangling, and sleepless hours usually reserved for paid campaign operatives in last week's down-to-the-wire presidential election.

With an A-list of political heavyweights visiting the campus on Election Day, independent activists trolling the grounds, and rampant activism on the part of students, there was no escaping the message that every vote mattered among the 40,000 young people who study in central Florida's I-4 corridor, flanking Interstate 4 from Tampa to Daytona Beach -- one of the state's most bitterly contested regions in the presidential campaign.

"We know and we've been told that we've got to get out the vote to be heard," said Lafarrah Davis, a senior majoring in mass communication. "I'm pulling my vote to make it count. You can't complain if you don't vote."

Voter turnout on the campus exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of both students and outside organizers. More than 700 students waited to vote for up to four hours at the Marshall Center, the student union, in a line that stretched from the fish tank in a computer lounge to the food court at the other end of the building.

"I've been working here since 1991, and we've never had more than 100 students vote," said Gloria J. Olstrom, a poll worker. "We've never even had a line before."

In the 2000 presidential election, only about 70 people cast ballots at the student center, according to poll watchers. But this year about 80 people had already gathered to vote when the polls opened at 7 a.m., prompting poll watchers to request extra electronic voting machines. A lengthening queue of voters continued to accumulate throughout the day.

As the students waited, members of groups supporting the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry, handed out water bottles, candy, and, finally, free pizza, to the cheers of the aspiring voters.

"We don't care who you're voting for," said Josh Cho, a senior majoring in political science and member of the College Democrats. "We're just so glad you turned out. It's going to make our demographic count. Thank you so, so much for turning out. Each one of your votes matter."

His group, along with Students for Kerry, registered more than 1,000 voters at South Florida. The combined efforts of the groups far outweighed those of the College Republicans, which registered about 30 voters on the campus and deferred to the state Republican Party for guidance on how to most effectively campaign for President Bush, according to the group's president, Matt Strenth.

"I kind of regret that we didn't do more with students on campus, but we've been more focused on getting out in the Tampa community and doing door-to-door efforts with the campaign," said Mr. Strenth, a sophomore majoring in government. Bush campaign organizers and state Republican leaders "have more experience in these matters then we do," he said, "so we don't want to be redundant."

Consequently, Kerry supporters were a lot more visible on Election Day and at preceding get-out-the-vote rallies on the campus, although election officials did not have information on whether more students had voted for the Massachusetts senator or the incumbent president.

'A Flurry of Questions'

Despite the impressive turnout of student voters, some of them reported voter fraud, possible disenfranchisement, and utter confusion. At the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library on November 1, the last night of the state's early-voting process, two South Florida students ran up to a poll worker, clearly alarmed.

They said they had already voted by absentee ballot in their home counties of Florida, but had subsequently received cards notifying them that their registration had been changed to Hillsborough County, where the university is located. Both students also said their party affiliation had been listed as Republican after they had signed a petition supporting tougher child-molestation laws.

Unbeknownst to them at the time, a group called Youth Voter Outreach had collected signatures from as many as 100 students under the false pretense of a nonpartisan petition and then had changed their voter registration and party affiliation without their permission. Local authorities said they were investigating the problem.

At the library, the poll worker, who declined to give her name, apparently did not understand the students' predicament. She took their second registration cards and told them, "Just don't vote twice, or you'll be wearing stripes."

After the encounter, one of the two students, Veniece Kilissanly, a senior, said she was "really pissed that that lady was rude to me." She said she was worried that her "vote won't count now that I'm registered in two locations."

On South Florida's campus the next day, students wearing Republican or Democratic gear approached the College Democrats' voter-information booth with a flurry of questions related to missing absentee ballots, and confusion over which voting precinct they should use to cast their ballots.

Without that voluntary service, many said they would not have known where to vote, because voter-information hot lines were busy all day. What's more, students working at the campus information desk -- adjacent to the voting booth in the Marshall Center -- said that even though students had repeatedly approached them with questions about the voting process going on nearby, nobody had given them any information with which to help the students.

And while the voting location on campus made it easy for many students to vote, they still faced some trouble in voting early. They could vote on the campus on Election Day but not ahead of time. Local election-board regulations require all early-voting locations to be either public libraries or public offices, said Dan Nolan, chief of staff for the Hillsborough County Board of Elections. South Florida's library was not deemed a public library by the election board, making the university ineligible to serve as an early-voting location.

So members of Students for Kerry and the College Democrats drove students to the early-voting places. The closest, the Keel library, a 10-minute drive away, had a four-and-a-half-hour line at its closing time of 6 p.m. on November 1. The inconvenience frustrated many students. Mr. Cho spent the entire day before the election driving students to and from the polls in his red, two-door Saturn. He skipped lunch. "I just can't believe they make things this complicated," he said.

He drove two African-American students to a polling location 20 minutes away because it had a relatively short line -- just a two-hour wait. On the way he snapped at other drivers and pedestrians who slowed him down. And before the students got out of the car, he debriefed them on their rights. "Just a warning: This poll district is in heavily Republican territory,'' he said. "So if anybody tries anything with you, call us, and we'll get a team of lawyers down here to slap them with an injunction and put them in jail."

"It's that serious?" one of the students asked. She would "be surprised," Mr. Cho responded.

Both students and poll watchers here asked why so few voting machines were assigned to the campus precinct, where 1,391 of about 4,000 students living on the campus had registered to vote, according to Mr. Nolan. When poll watchers saw the long line of students at 7 a.m., they immediately called local election officials to request extra voting booths. Around 2 p.m. the board sent another machine, bringing the total to four. But about 150 students were still waiting to vote at the 7 p.m. cutoff.

Poll workers stayed until 9 p.m. to make sure that everyone who was in line by 7 had an opportunity to vote. The campus precinct was the last one to close in Hillsborough County.

Waiting but Patient

With so many first-time voters lined up, poll workers stayed busy, making telephone calls to check that any students whose names were not on the official list from election officials were actually registered to vote. Lawyers and poll watchers monitored the process closely, sometimes standing only a few feet away from poll workers and challenging them when they told students that they could not vote. Some poll workers grew irritated with the monitors, complaining by telephone to election officials that the onlookers were disruptive.

In all, only about 20 students whose registrations were called into question had to vote using provisional ballots. Most students remained patient as they waited, plopping down in folding chairs to talk on cellphones or study. Each advance of the line prompted another round of musical chairs, with students trading seats one by one. While a few students saw the long line and turned away, most said they were determined to wait it out, missing classes, jobs, or study time because, they said, they did not want a repeat of the 2000 election.

"As long as it takes -- I'll be out here all night if I have to," said John Gordon Jr., a graduate student in education. "I had friends in Clearwater last time who were blocked from voting by the police, and I've got a little brother in the National Guard who just spent a year in Iraq and is facing redeployment. This election is not going to be stolen from us."