Sara Louise Lazarus is an Grassroots Correspondent for HuffPost's OffTheBus.
Making "the Great Schlep" Saturday to Tampa, I chatted with my New Jersey cab driver on the way to the airport. He was a well-spoken British black man, and although he was well aware of how popular Barack Obama is in Europe, he seemed highly skeptical that the American public would embrace and elect this black candidate. I did get a sense that he was surprised and elated to have a white, middle-aged female passenger who was flying all the way to Florida to work for Obama.
The three men at the car rental company in Tampa were also intrigued by the fact I was down here to volunteer. I asked them for whom they were voting, and one happily pointed to my Obama button and said, "I'm with you. My wife and I couldn't get off from work to vote early but will go to the polls Tuesday." The other two were silent. On my way to the car, I spoke with the young man in the elevator with me. He was from Ohio, and had voted early there before heading on his vacation. He told me that McCain had been at a rally near his home last week, and his mother was thrilled to have been seen on TV standing behind him. I said, "So you're a McCain supporter?" He said, "Yes, but I don't think he'll win."
I chose to go to Tampa because my friend Kim, who plays the opera diva in the national tour of Phantom Of The Opera here, is as obsessed with the election as I am, and invited me down to stay with her and work. I've been volunteering in Pennsylvania often over the last few months, and know that lots of volunteers are being bused from New York and New Jersey to PA, so after calling Florida, I thought they were more in need of people to help out. I also intend to spend time with relatives here.
My first decision was where to go to in town to make the biggest difference. With early voting continuing in some counties through Sunday, there are several groups actively at work. The local Democrats, focusing on candidates all the way down the ballot, are canvassing, making calls, and organizing people to drive people to the polls. The Obama campaign is sending groups out to work door-to-door, and others are phonebanking. But on my first day, I chose to help out at a statewide voter hotline.
I found it to be a challenging, frustrating, and ultimately very satisfying job. I liked the fact that we were committed to helping all people, regardless of party affiliation, to be able to vote.
Far too many people called asking if they could still register. Although in a few states they can register up until Election Day, in Florida registration ended October 6. I had to break them the bad news that they couldn't vote, and urged them to register immediately so they could be eligible for the next election.
Many aspects of early voting are confusing in Florida. Recently, Republican Governor Charlie Crist extended the days and times, which was a welcome decision, but has created a bit of chaos. Some counties continued into Sunday, others ended Saturday. Hours varied per county. One good thing--the state has made it easy for early voters by allowing them to vote in any designated polling place in their county, as opposed to only one polling location for their traditional vote on Election Day.
With so many different options, voters are understandably confused. So was I--new at advising them--and overwhelmed by all the rules and regulations I'd had to absorb in a short time. I wasn't of much help to Jeannette from Jacksonville, who wanted to know where she could vote on Sunday. I hadn't understood that she could vote early in any of her county polling places, and spent far too long looking for an exact location for her. Ultimately, I had to have her call her County Supervisor, and hope she was able to get through.
I also couldn't do much for at least three women who were either out of state at the moment, or had to leave early Monday for last-minute business trips. If they didn't have Sunday voting in their counties, and couldn't get back to Florida on Monday or Tuesday, they were out of luck. Some mistakenly thought they could still send in absentee ballots, but the mail in option is no longer available by now.
Others had moved and wanted to vote in their new counties but didn't have picture ID there yet. They were going to have to find time to go to their old counties and polling places. Some could, some couldn't and would not be able to vote. Very frustrating.
The way I was really of assistance was with absentee ballots. I was able to assure Sheila in St. Augustine that even though she had to leave Monday, since she already had her absentee ballot, she could entrust it to a friend to bring to the Supervisor of Elections through 7pm Tuesday. She was relieved, and energized to find a friend who would help her out. I was also happy to be able to tell others who wanted to vote on Monday that they could go to their county Supervisor of Elections and get and hand in an absentee ballot there.
Sometimes calls were lost, sometimes after I'd talked with people for a while we were suddenly cut off. Computers with important information would freeze. Most people were patient and grateful, but a few were angry when we couldn't tell them what they wanted to hear.
Sunday, I made phone calls at Obama's downtown headquarters. They really need more volunteers to counter the large number of McCain supporters going door to door, and passing out flyers like crazy. There were about five of us on the phones. One of my calls was to Mary, a Hillary supporter who is still undecided. She let me talk with her for over fifteen minutes, and I have no idea if our conversation affected her choice at all. Essentially, she hopes that if Obama loses, Hillary can run again in 2012. She was clear that she wouldn't make up her mind until she's in the voting booth on Tuesday.
Overall, the feeling in Florida is that this will be a tight race here. The polls continue to be close. In Tampa, all I saw yesterday in my time circling downtown lost, in my car--I've never been here before and all the one-way streets can be maddening--were McCain/Palin signs. The tv is filled with dueling ads from both candidates. The night doorman at our hotel is constantly watching Fox news.
Most Obama workers I've spoken with are proud of the kind of campaign he's waged--calm, confident, and issue-focused, in stark contrast to what they see as the angry, erratic attacks of the McCain campaign.
Obama people feel they are part of an enormous movement for positive change. I see absolutely no over-confidence or complacency. Most are nervous, not sleeping, exhausted after months of work, and eager for it to finally be over.
The attached picture is from Obama Tampa campaign headquarters downtown, at the phone bank on Sunday, November 2. I'm in the second row, center, on the phone.
As for me, I was climbing hills getting out the vote in Scranton, PA in 2004. When we started home around 5pm, all the national polls and pundits were declaring that Kerry would win. We were elated. In our car, the only coverage we could get was three separate stations broadcasting Sean Hannity. He was bereft, saying it didn't look good, but urging all voters out West that there was still time to turn the tide. But by the time I got home to my husband and son in New Jersey, George Bush had called the press in to the White House to demonstrate his confidence, and the results coming in were beginning to turn in his favor.
I know what it is to think your candidate is winning, and have your hopes dashed. All I can do at this moment, like everyone else deeply involved in this election, is to feel the knot in my stomach, continue to work... and wait.