Faced with an impossible backlog of reading assignments, the rapidly approaching New England winter and the “most important election of my lifetime,” I decided to spend my fall break from law school in Florida working on a campaign in that state’s hotly contested Senate race. One week and several hundred house calls later, I left with a newfound respect for the voting public and an invigorated sense of optimism in our democratic process.
Thanks to a friend on the full-time campaign staff, I was put right to work going door-to-door in the working-class neighborhoods of Pinellas County in St. Petersburg. Squeezed between conservative northern Florida and the more liberal-leaning counties to the south, the greater Tampa-St. Petersburg area is Florida’s Florida — a swing region that will likely determine the outcome of this year’s fiercely contested Senate race. In fact, given the important role that Florida is once again likely to play in this year’s presidential election, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a scenario in which Pinellas County voters determine not only who will control the Senate next year, but who will be sitting in the Oval Office on Jan. 23 as well.
So it was that, fueled by a combination of voter envy and civic duty, I set about my task of reaching out to independent voters in order to persuade them that “our candidate” was the right choice for Florida. Coming from a state solidly parked on one side of the ideological fence, I was desperate to make my mark on this electoral season by connecting with those who have, by fate of geography and constitutional design, been given the keys to our nation’s political future. Still, as part of what can only be described as an onslaught of such out-of-state influence seekers, I was also apprehensive about how I might be received.
What I learned was that Floridians are much more engaged, informed and polite than the rest of America seems to give them credit for. Of the hundreds of Floridians whom I approached, I can count on one hand the number who professed no interest in voting. In fact, officials are predicting that upwards of 75 percent of registered voters will vote in this election, an incredibly high percentage by any standard. Of those who were planning to vote (or already had, thanks to early voting), most were aware of the candidates, their positions and their records. This may be due in part to the barrage of political advertisements that have forced the issues into people’s living rooms this year. But before the campaign managers congratulate themselves, they would be wise to note that most of the voters I spoke with seemed to be both cynical and disappointed with the negative nature of those ads.
Negative advertisements not withstanding, many Floridians have gone out of their way to inform themselves on the issues. It was remarkable to me how many people professed to have used newspapers, the Internet or other sources to seek out more objective information. Perhaps even more remarkable was the extent to which Floridians consistently displayed a patient courtesy towards me that seemed to express both appreciation and amusement. Although I am sure that most Floridians cannot wait for this election to be over, most seem to understand the important functional and symbolic role that their participation in this election will play in repairing America’s electoral psyche.
In contrast to all the negative campaigning, doomsday rhetoric and anxious anticipation that has dominated the election news over the past several weeks, my experience in Florida made me proud to be an American and appreciative of our democratic process — flawed as it may be. Though we don’t agree on who should have won, I hope we can all agree that the increased interest and participation of citizens all over the country in the political process is a step forward in a direction all of our elected leaders must commit to following.
Jason Pielemeier is a first-year student at the Law School.