As the St. John Progressive Missionary Baptist Church vans pulled up to the C. Blythe Andrews library polling place to let congregants out to vote, a line already snaked out the voting entrance. A table was set up on one end of the library’s parking lot where volunteers served fried fish and hush puppies. A DJ blared gospel music that could be heard blocks away. It was after-church Sunday, the first and only Sunday of “Souls to the Polls” in most of Florida, and the second day of early voting. Here in Tampa, early voters, and black voters in particular, had already made their statement.
Despite setbacks such as Governor Rick Scott’s HB 1355, which undercut voter registration drives and reinstated harsh felony voting restrictions and his notorious purge program, voters turned out in record numbers this past weekend: over a half-million people cast early votes statewide by Monday morning. In Hillsborough County, 36,702 early votes Saturday and Sunday—roughly 2,500 of those cast at the C. Blythe Andrews site in Tampa’s historically black College Hill neighborhood. As of last night, more than 55,000 voted early.
These numbers far outweighed the historic 2008 election here, when less than 17,000 turned out for the first weekend of early voting, 1,248 at Andrews (then called College Hill Library). Back then, those were considered remarkable numbers. This year, they’ve almost doubled that, despite the odds against them.
After dismal voter turnout numbers in 2010, the year Scott was elected, Get Out The Vote advocates retooled and put together an aggressive canvassing strategy that made sure people were registered and “knew their status”—verifying that their address was updated, and that any felony convictions were cleared up. In 2008, African-American voters were self-motivated, hyped about the prospect of not only electing the first black president but also finally undoing the eight years of economic and political ruin of George W. Bush.
“I don’t think there was a GOTV strategy in 2010,” says Belinthia Berry, a political strategist who works with the NAACP and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, who was on hand for the Souls to the Polls outing at Andrews. “This year we really made a conscious effort to actually canvass, knock on doors—people actually know GOTV now, pushing people to vote, as opposed to 2010 when I didn’t even know. Nobody knocked on my door or pushed me to vote.”
Yvette Lewis, political action chair of the Hillsborough County NAACP, was also on hand Sunday, passing out voter materials, directing traffic and responding to any voters who needed help. At one point a Haitian church group approached the polling site with about a half-dozen congregants who primarily spoke Creole, their English limited. Lewis immediately stepped in to help them and let them know that they could bring another person to the voting booth to help them with their language challenges, as protected by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.