"Now, you vote. You vote for me because I can't." Restoring Voting Rights in St. Petersburg

James is a lifelong resident of St. Pete, and has been my partner for the past two days in getting out the vote. He’s part of the Local 1199 group, which has teamed up with Common Purpose’s partner Organizing for Action to bring people to the polls in Pinellas County, Florida. It’s exciting times here in Florida. Andrew Gillum is running for governor and could be the first black governor in the state---EVER!

Making history is fun, but for James it’s real. He committed a felony in his youth and hasn’t been able to vote in 30 years. He’s only cast one vote in his entire life.  This makes him the best spokesperson for ballot amendment #4, Second Chances, that will give the right to vote back to 1.4M Floridians who have committed felonies and served their time.  James knocks on doors wearing his T-shirt that reads, “Florida believes in second chances. It’s the right thing to do.”

James is adamant while talking to voters. “Now, you vote. You vote for me because I can’t vote. It ain’t right. I made a mistake and I’ve been paying for it all my life. I want to vote. That is why I am out here. You gotta vote for me.” Often, people behind the screendoors we approach are in the same predicament as James. “I can’t vote,” they mumble or snarl, but when they hear James’ story, they open their screens.

A St. Pete resident for more than 56 years, James knows everybody, it seems. His mother and grandparents live here. We cruise the streets and he yells out the window to folks or they yell to him. I am riding with a celebrity and start to wave out the windows, too. One time we go by a group of his buddies and I shout, “Go vote!” James chuckles and tells me I am messing with them.

We encounter all types of people as we knock doors east to west, south to north. There is the caretaker whose elderly charge wants to vote, but she is confused about where. No wonder: voting in Pinellas County is tricky. You only have so many days to mail in your ballot - which costs 71 cents in postage, by the way. You can early vote in person at the courthouse or in Gulfport but that ended November 4. You can’t vote Monday, November 5. And if you vote on Election Day, you can only vote in your precinct. Voter suppression is subtle.

Late Saturday afternoon we hit a huge apartment complex, maybe 500 apartments, with a numbering system that makes no sense. I’m ready to throw in the towel, but James won’t quit. We find a young man who hasn’t voted because he didn’t know where to vote. We give him the necessary information and he thanks us, shaking my hand. I almost cry. All my frustration and fatigue disappear in that moment. Convincing young people that their vote counts has been the biggest challenge.  His response was a gift.

It’s not all work. James takes me to the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants for lunch. The deal is, I pay for lunch and he pays for gas. Saturday, I had a blackened shrimp salad, and Sunday, short ribs in a Jamaican place. Ice cream trucks come down the streets of the “good” neighborhoods and I get so excited because I won’t see an ice cream truck until July. I discover flip cups: frozen cups of juice that you drink until you flip the frozen mass over to create a slushie. So delicious! Good thing we are walking a lot.

Now it is Monday, one day before Election Day. I will be missing my wingman, as James returns to his day job, but hopefully the education he gave me over the weekend will pay off as we hit the streets once again.

Written by Seanna Browder

Christena CoutsoubosComment