Memories from an early voting day in Gainesville

It was a long hot day, with wind gusts blowing our supplies off the table and rattling our tent poles. Then came a torrential but brief downpour. So, by 6:30 PM when I left the Tower Road Library I was dehydrated, drenched and exhausted but, satisfied and happy to have been part of this historic event. 

I spent the day with JoAnne, another volunteer, providing security for the vote-by-mail drop box at the early voting site. Before each person deposited  their ballot, we verified it was for a voter registered in Alachua County, that it was signed and sealed. JoAnne developed a cheerleading cadence for screening each ballot and the voters all got a big grin as they gleefully dropped their ballot into the slot.

By the end of the day we had 205 ballots. 

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The site was well staffed with Wilbur, roaming the grounds being visible but not threatening, with the second of our walkie-talkie set firmly in hand in case of emergency at the drop box. Wilson, a tall powerfully built man with a  sonorous voice, warm smile and large earring, also provided casual but observant site security. He also assisted people who had limited ability to stand in line for, what in the morning, was an hour or more.

At first, JoAnne and I, dutifully guarding our drop box,  were mystified by his deep voice ringing out with a repeated phrase  that she finally determined was a “scuse me” while he escorted someone to the front of the line. It was a lighthearted way of advocating for a person with physical limitations. 

Because we were sitting under a white canopy at the entrance to the library, we were a visible access point which served as an unintended welcome center. So, we had lots of questions, which made my day more satisfying than just guard duty: What should I do with a mail-in ballot if I am resident of Pinellas County? Can I still request a vote-by-mail ballot? I just moved from Miami, can I vote here? Can I still register to vote? Can I help my daughter who cannot stand in line? How do I know my ballot will be counted? How long does early voting last?  

Most of the people who came to the site voted in person and the line in the morning was often very long – twisting around the patio, crossing the parking lot then winding out on Tower Road. 

The afternoon line was shorter. The day seemed  a little like a summer festival, with everyone dressed for a picnic and treating each other with courtesy.  People projected an optimistic calm which created a friendly atmosphere. All were masked and physically distant and yet seemed to project an earnestness and appreciation of the privilege and ceremony of voting. 

The things I remember…..

A 91-year-old man was shepherded to our table by his wife.  He was nicely dressed and for his big visit to the early voting site.  He accepted my help while navigating the curb as he stepped over it  but, in spite of his shaky, somewhat erratic walking, refused further assistance. I turned him over to Wilbur who knew better than to offer any and walked him sedately to the front of the line. 

Waking in from the parking lot, looking a little uncertain, I saw a young woman holding on to a tiny woman who was walking very slowly while leaning heavily on the cane she held in her other hand. I  greeted them and the young woman proudly stated her companion was 93 and here to vote! I asked them to wait while I went hunting for Wilson. He gently and with great dignity escorted them into the building. 

A young man, who appeared at first to be a child looking for his parent, stood in front of our table and proudly announced he was here to vote, adding unnecessarily, that it was his first time. JoAnne directed him to the end line of early voters. 

A young woman showed up with her ballot and 2 envelopes . She was all aflutter because she still had one from the primary, but she was not sure which one had come with the current ballot. While she prepared her envelop, she smiled shyly and said this is my first time voting …can you tell?! Then giggled as she dropped her ballot into the box. 

A man  pulled into the parking spot right in front of our table in a humongous three wheeled motorcycle. He looked like a typical older biker guy with an old tee shit with a logo too faded to read, a well-trimmed grey beard and broad shoulders.  As he was taking off his helmet I made a comment on his “beautiful big rig”. He grinned and said he did have a smaller one at home. Then he dismounted from the bike, landing on legs that did not reach his knees. He swung his body toward the back of the bike and quicky unfolded a wheelchair and hiked himself into it with a grace born of strength and confidence. He smiled and headed over to the end of the early voting line. 

A woman approached the dropbox in her mechanized wheelchair. She was clutching her ballot in the envelop which was unsigned and unsealed. She said her ability to write was not as good as it had been when she had signed her Florida ID Card and she was worried it would not match. After a quick consult with TJ, who answered the phone before the second ring, I told her she just had to do her best to sign.  We got out her Florida ID so she could do her best to match it. I held her pocketbook flat to give her a surface to use for stabilizing her envelope and she asked me to pull her arm forward to get it away from her body. As was doing this gently trying not to hurt her  I reacted with alarm when her chair started to move and was trying to figure out what to do to help when it stopped moving.  She had to tell me that I had leaned my worts on the lever that activated the motor. I was so embarrassed and apologized profusely, but we tried a second time I did the same thing, so she said, patiently, that if I pressed  the red button it would turn off the motor. During the second attempt we still could not get the pen near enough to the envelop so we moved to our table where she tried again. On this third try she had the foresight to remind me to turn off the motor before helping with her arm. We could  still not connect the pen with the envelop so undeterred,  we motored around to the west entrance to the library where there was another table that was the correct height and  (drum roll please) she signed her name! We beamed as we compared her signature to the one on her ID and it matched well,  but I dutifully followed TJ instructions to make sure  her phone number was clearly written on the outside of the envelop. So, we motored back to the box and she watched me drop her ballot in. I organized her phone and pocketbook and placed it carefully on her lap with her non driving hand holding it securely (she confidently assured me). I asked how she was getting home and  oh my gosh what a woman she said she was going drive home along Tower Road in her chair!!!!! 

A mother and daughter showed up together, proudly and happily depositing their ballots into the box. When walking away the daughter said, “here mom let me take your picture”. I offered take a pic so they could  both be in it.  They seemed delighted and posed with their arms wrapped around each other instructing me to be sure to frame the picture so their “I voted” stickers showed. 

On the parking lot I saw a happy young couple arranging themselves with lots of smiles, laughter and bumping into each other taking a selfie. I called out to ask if they wanted me to take their picture, but they were so busy enjoying each other’s company they did not notice the offer. 

A mother and young daughter came to the drop box and  mom dropped her ballot in and photographed the young girl dropping in her fathers ballot. As they walked away, they stopped to take a selfie of them both and I heard mom say we can show these to dad when he gets home. 

A mother and young daughter pulled in near our table and the little girl was beautifully outfitted in a purple velveteen dress with shoes decorated with big colorful bows.  I offered the shy but curious child a “future voter” sticker, which she seemed happy to get. Mom said they were headed to the library  adding that she had already voted. When they passed me   returning back to the car the little girl looked at me  but did not say anything.  So, mom finally said “she gave her sticker to me (mom had it on her shirt) so she wonders if she can have another one. Such a sweet and generous child. Definitely a future voter! 

It was a fun and rewarding day. 

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