MAXWELL: One woman’s inspiring effort to vote in a lesson of voter responsibility

11/26/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

PORT CHARLOTTE

Doubtless, the 2000 presidential election will go down as a low point in American political history.

Average citizens, for example, enhanced their cache of triviality. They learned new twists on old terms such as chad, dimple and butterfly. Media sharks and legal scholars went for blood. Dick Cheney, our probable vice president, gave us the word “stent” (a stainless steel mesh that props open the artery). George W. Bush and other GOP operatives lied to voters about Cheney’s most recent “very mild” heart attack mere days before the last pregnant dimple was counted in Florida. The Florida Supreme Court was branded partisan.

But behind what one front-page headline calls “political bedlam,” a simple tale of voter responsibility and citizenship quietly unfolded in Florida and Kentucky.

On the morning of Nov. 3, four days before we thought we would elect our 43rd president, Letitia Dobosy, a University of Louisville graduate student studying social work, panicked when realizing that she had not received an absentee ballot from the supervisor of elections office in Port Charlotte, where she is a permanent resident.

Knowing that time was running out to get a ballot in the mail and return it in time for the Tuesday deadline, the 46-year-old student telephoned the supervisor of elections in Port Charlotte and explained her situation. Letitia had assumed that her ballot would automatically come because it had done so during the 1996 general election.

A staff member in the supervisor’s office told Letitia that she should have formally requested an absentee ballot weeks or months earlier. The office does not keep a permanent list of voters needing absentee ballots.

“Okay, I asked, how can I still responsibly vote despite my error?” Letitia said. “The lady told me that they could mail out the ballot by regular mail and hope that I receive it in time to overnight it back to them by Election Day. But she doubted that I would receive it in time by regular mail delivery. I suggested that her office send it priority mail or overnight it C.O.D. Impossible, she said, because this kind of special assistance would set a bad precedent and an expectation for other late voters.”

Letitia was told that a blood relative or another authorized person could pick up the ballot at the supervisor of elections office and overnight it to her, and she could return it over night. She telephoned a relative in Port Charlotte who was unable to help. She contacted several acquaintances in the area, each wondering why she would go to so much trouble when her one vote would not matter anyway.

The cynicism disappointed her.

“As a young girl growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, I witnessed responsible attitudes toward voting,” she said. “Religiously, my parents, relatives and other town folk stood in line at the polls _ rain or snow or shine _ waiting to cast their vote. These were my role models.”

Watching the clock, Letitia telephoned the supervisor of elections again and pleaded for help. A long lecture about taking responsibility ensued, offending Letitia. She told the supervisor to stop the chastising and help her find a way out of her quandary.

Here, matters took a positive turn. The supervisor found Letitia’s name in the computer and said, “Oh, you’re a Democrat. Why don’t you call Democratic Headquarters and see if they can help?”

Letitia followed the advice. The first lady she spoke with at Democratic Headquarters wanted to help but had to leave in five minutes. She would, however, leave a message for the other volunteers. When they returned, someone might call her, she said, but warned Letitia that everyone was “very busy.”

After pacing the floor for more than two hours and having not received a return call, Letitia telephoned the headquarters and spoke with Don Washington, a volunteer. Himself partially sighted, Don was sympathetic when Letitia mentioned that she has advanced retinitis pigmentosa. Although she can still read, the eye disease affects her mobility in unfamiliar places, where she uses a cane, and it prevents her from driving. Either her husband or friends drive her _ or she walks.

Wanting Letitia to get the best advice, Don handed the telephone to 65-year-old Angelina Sullivan. Inspired by Letitia’s determination to vote, Angelina, a retired hospital worker and mother of seven, wanted to do whatever necessary to get the ballot to Kentucky promptly.

“When I listened to her story, I could not say no,” Angelina said. “And between the two of us, we worked it out.”

Following is what they worked out: Angelina would go to the supervisor of elections office, pick up an absentee ballot and overnight it to Kentucky. Don gave Angelina money for the mailing. For her part, Letitia first would have to fax a letter to the Charlotte County Board of Electors authorizing Angelina to get the ballot. To use the nearest fax machine, Letitia would have to walk three miles to and from Mail Boxes, Etc.

Meanwhile, Angelina would have to drive to the supervisor’s office and show personal identification before getting the ballot. From there, she would drive to the nearest post office and overnight the ballot.

Letitia alerted her local post office that the Florida ballot would arrive the next day. The agent said he would personally deliver it to her home when it arrived, which he did. Letitia completed it. But because the nearest post office closes at 11:00 A.M. on Saturday, she and her husband had to drive to a post office 35 miles away to overnight the ballot at a cost of $11.75. They also priority mailed a check to the Charlotte County Democractic Headquarters for the same amount.

Letitia’s ballot reached the elections office on time. Her vote was counted.

On Nov. 19, Angelina and Letitia met for dinner at a Sarasota restaurant. It was an emotional meeting, the women hugging each other for several minutes. At the meal’s end, Angelina tried to return Letitia’s $11.75 check, saying, “The Democratic Headquarters believed that this was our end of it, our part of it. This is what we should be doing, and it was our pleasure.”

Aside from the Democractic Headquarters connection, Angelina feels personally tied to Letitia, who received the 2000 Bertha Capen Reynolds Award from the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work that is given to students exemplifying social consciousness.

“I want everyone to know how one individual affected me,” Angelia said. “I couldn’t wait to go home to tell my husband. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve told this story to because of this one vote. It was so important for Letitia to vote. She inspired our whole office. I don’t think what is happening today with the presidential election would be happening if more people were like her.

“I don’t understand the reasoning behind not voting. It’s just so important. I’m in complete awe of Letitia for doing this. It makes me want to cry. I sent Vice President Al Gore an e-mail telling him about her. I thought he would be interested in her story _ since he believes that every vote counts.”