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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Groups in Florida Look to Highlight Changes as Early Voting Begins

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Before the supervisor of elections opened the main polling site here in Duval County at 7 a.m., a line of almost 100 people had already formed, snaking its way along the sidewalk of a strip-mall parking lot.

All but three voters in line were black. As they waited, they held hands and prayed.

“Our father, our God,” began the Rev. R.L. Gundy of Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. “Our ancestors paid a dear price to have a right to vote, and we don't take it for granted. Yet the enemy does all it can to disenfranchise us. God, go with us into these polls and every poll around the country.”

He continued, “We are not fearful. We are not afraid. We will not be turned away.”

And the crowd said a somber “Amen.”

Then, in a more jubilant mood, someone screamed, “Fired up?” And a chant began: “Ready to vote!”

“Fired up” … “Ready to vote” …”Fired up” … â €œReady to vote” …

Many of the black voters who gathered here Saturday morning, the first day of early voting in Florida, had spent the night sleeping in tents and recreational vehicles near the elections office. Their plan was to “Occupy the Polls” in an effort to raise awareness about changes to early voting this year that shorten the number of days for casting ballots.

Mr. Gundy, the Florida president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helped organize the camping and “blessing of the polls” out of a sense of outrage that the state took away the Sunday before Election Day as an option for early voting. Early voting will end next Saturday.

The Sunday before Election Day had been the main day for churches in Florida to get their “souls to the polls,” a tradition for many black congregations. In 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency, black turnout was particularly strong across Florida on the Sunday before Election Day.

“They're trying to turn back the hands of time,” Mr. Gundy said. “They knew that was an important day for us. They knew minorities tended to vote on the Sunday before Election Day. But we're not going to let that foolishness stop us.”

First in line when the doors to the polls swung open was the track team from Edward Waters College - four women - and their coach, Archie Gallon. They had come in a van in the pre-dawn darkness.

“I wanted to sleep late, but I also thought it was important to be here,” said Amber Durrett, 19. “Very exciting. We're voting for the first time.”

Others in the crowd had been organized by Florida New Majority, a get-out-the-vote organization that helped bring churches, black fraternal groups and others together to “Occupy the Polls.”

With Hurricane Sandy churning up the Atlantic Ocean off the coast, the winds were gusty and cool. People kept warm with McDonald's coffee, doughnuts and breakfast sandwich es.

As the line grew and grew, a woman took a megaphone and announced, “You are not waiting in vain!”

Three Romney supporters showed up with signs. One said he hoped to “convert” the crowd. The group held their Romney-Ryan signs during the blessing, but also held hands in prayer.

“It's a Southern thing,” said Hank Lengfellner, a retired land surveyor who was one of the Romney supporters. “I want to see everybody vote, I do. But I want to see informed voters vote.”

Asked why he had come to this particular poll, in a predominantly black area, Mr. Lengfellner and his friend Rick Hartley, who are white, said it was about convenience. “We're early people,” Mr. Lengfellner said.

But Mr. Hartley seemed keen to ruffle a few feathers. He asked one of the Occupy organizers, Representative Corrine Brown, a Democrat of Jacksonville, if he could take a picture with her holding his Romney sign. She refused. He asked again, then asked other s.

There were mumbles about why this man had come here to have his picture taken.

Eventually, someone snapped a shot of Mr. Hartley and Ms. Brown, but without the political sign.

By 7:30 a.m., the crowd had grown to about 200 people, almost all of them black. There were whole families, college students, and groups of the elderly who had come together from retirement villages. In the parking lot outside the polls, they sang, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but with a few lyrics changed to express support for President Obama.

“Oh, I want to be in his number.”

Now the sun was up, trying to break through a thick layer of clouds threatening rain.

“Good morning!” a poll worker, Shaela Manning, greeted those standing in line. “Everybody make sure you have a picture I.D. available. Our polls are officially open.”