I had never been this paranoid about voting before. I checked my voter registration multiple times before flying to Florida for early voting. I traveled across the country to vote, rather than voting absentee. That’s how much I needed the reassurance of physically handing in my vote. Think of this paranoia as the post-traumatic stress of more than a century of blatant, consistent efforts by the right to undermine, discourage, and disenfranchise people of color. All too often, barriers have been placed in the way of our voting—or when election laws are applied, we’ve been held to a different standard.
Unfortunately, my spidey senses turned out to be right. When I showed up at the polling site near my house, I found that I had been kicked off the registered-voter roll.
A flurry of phone calls, and lots of head-nodding and “mmm-hmm”s from the supervisor of the polling site, failed to produce any explanation of why the system wasn’t showing me as a registered voter. I was allowed to fill out a provisional ballot. I was given two sheets of paper. One had my provisional-ballot number and explained my rights as a provisional voter. The other sheet listed a website and phone number for the Orange County supervisor of elections’ office in Orlando. I was told I could use that information to track my ballot.
It wasn’t until 45 minutes later that this voting mystery began to unravel. Shortly after I left the polling site, an official from the elections office called me and told me that a tweet I had posted a few weeks earlier had been brought to their attention. I had written that I had recently moved to Los Angeles, but was returning to Florida for early voting so I could vote for Andrew Gillum, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Being a journalist means signing up for life as a nomad. I’ve lived in three different cities this year alone. I’ve lived in six different cities over the course of my 21-year career in journalism. Part of the reason I bought a house in Orlando in 2006 was to establish a base of permanent residency—to have a place to call home, wherever I might temporarily reside. I have never rented my home to another person. I get my bank statements sent there. And I pay Florida property taxes.
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My tweet in support of Gillum was retweeted nearly 6,300 times and received nearly 35,000 likes. I wasn’t trying to persuade people to vote for Gillum, but to encourage people to vote, period. I wanted people to know that voting in this year’s midterms was so important to me that I’d cross time zones just to make sure I participated in our democratic process.
I pressed the official who called me from the supervisor of elections’ office about how my tweet had landed on their radar. “Let’s just say it was a red brigade,” he said.
I’m guessing that had I tweeted support for Gillum’s challenger, Ron DeSantis, no one would have questioned my right to vote in Florida. Also in the back of my mind was the dust-up I’d had with the president last year. I’m not accusing Donald Trump of trying to suppress my vote, but I wouldn’t put it past his ardent supporters.
“The fact is, you’re a high-profile person who has political enemies,” said Richard Hasen, a chancellor’s professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, and a leading authority on election law. “The president has influenced passions about voter fraud, so people in the public eye will be watched very carefully. Everybody is looking for a ‘gotcha’ to see if a prominent person across the aisle is committing voter fraud.”
Thanks to this whole ordeal, I now have something in common with Ann Coulter and the former White House adviser Steve Bannon (a sentence I never want to type again). The three of us have been accused of committing voter fraud—all in the state of Florida. Coulter also was accused of voter fraud in Connecticut.
Dan Borchers, a conservative blogger and longtime critic of Coulter, filed a voter-fraud complaint against Coulter’s voting in Connecticut in the 2002 and 2004 elections; she was also investigated for voter fraud in Florida in the 2006 election. She was cleared in both states. The Guardian reported that Bannon’s Florida voter registration was attached to an abandoned property. The Miami-Dade state’s attorney later determined that there was reasonable doubt as to whether Bannon had sworn falsely on his voter-registration application.
“Especially in our increasingly mobile society, a person may spend the majority of his or her nights at one (or multiple) locations, but legally reside at another,” she concluded. “Reporters embedded with a national political campaign often sleep in different jurisdictions every night, but they are still able to claim legal residency at a home base. That home base may be where a spouse lives, where their office is, or where they feel most at home.”
In another election year, this incident would just be a funny story for me to repeat at parties—but this was the most serious election of my lifetime. I wanted to vote. In the midterms, we were not simply exercising our customary tradition of voting for our leadership, but fighting for the soul and identity of this country.
That might seem dramatic, but there’s no other way to look at it. This country has always stood for certain ideals: freedom, democracy, decency. We have routinely fallen short of them, but we’ve shown enough flashes of being capable of upholding those principles to, at the very least, make fighting for them seem worthwhile.
Too many people now seem to be celebrating and reveling in our backwards slide. Right now this isn’t a country that’s behaving like it wants to be the best version of itself. It’s becoming a country that is determined to cater to its worst instincts, fears, and insecurities.
We have a president who is openly bragging about being a nationalist and purposely stoking racial resentment. Trump’s political party is willingly tethering itself to his dangerous rhetoric in order to consolidate power, giving little regard to the lasting damage being done to the nation’s moral compass. People are not only being radicalized to hate; they’re channeling that hate into violent and deadly acts—as in Louisville and Pittsburgh.
In Remember the Titans, the star linebacker Julius Campbell told his teammate Gerry Bertier: “Attitude reflects leadership.” So what does the current attitude in this country say about its present leadership?
This is why this election mattered to me more than any other. The election official who contacted me told me that, based upon the information I shared with him, there seemed to be no evidence I had committed voter fraud. He also warned me that he didn’t get to make the final determination about whether my provisional ballot would be accepted. That would be up to the supervisor of elections.
My spidey senses don’t know what to make of that.