FAMU Students Protest Election Day Mishaps in Florida
By Linda Meggett Brown
Florida A&M University students who marched and staged a sit-in at the state Capitol have initiated an e-mail campaign to the secretary of state to express their continued concern about the election process.
Student leaders complain that some on-campus students were disrespected and intimidated when they tried to vote in last month’s presidential election.
Amid the controversial and much discussed hand-count of ballots in the Sunshine State, more than 2,000 college students journeyed from the campus to the steps of the Capitol and staged a silent protest a week following the election.
About 250 students stayed overnight in the rotunda at the Capitol building, hoping that Secretary of State Katherine Harris would listen to their complaints.
“She didn’t once come out and acknowledge our presence,” says Melanie Roussell, student government association spokesperson. “Harris went home to her family and warm bed while we slept outside in the cold.”
The group of students stayed nearly 24 hours, with some sleeping while sitting upright in chairs and using each other’s shoulders as a headrest and sharing pillows and blankets.
SGA President Derric Heck says they expect accountability from the secretary of state and attorney general’s office for elections. He says they seek an investigation into the discrepancies on campus and across the state.
“We want to know that our voices are being heard and that our votes count. We worked hard to raise voter awareness and voter turnout, and we will continue that work as responsible registered voters to make sure that our constituents, the students at Florida A&M University, are allowed to vote without intimidation and confusion,” Heck says.
Students did hear from Democratic State Rep. Tony Hill and Sen. Kendrick Meek. Both lawmakers have been closely aligned with student activists here since they staged their own sit-in in the governor’s office last January after Gov. Jeb Bush refused to hear their opposition to his One Florida plan.
Student leaders complained that about 500 students on campus were turned away from voting places on Election Day. About 1,400 students, mostly freshmen living on campus, did have a chance to cast their ballots.
There are more than 2,000 students who vote on campus, Roussell says. The historically Black institution has more than 12,000 students.
Some students complained that they received two voter registration cards with different polling places listed. Some were turned away from campus polling places and sent to different off-campus locations. Others were told they weren’t registered to vote, Roussell says.
The accusations warrant some action, student leaders say. As citizens, they must be concerned about every individual’s freedom to cast a vote. Some critics questioned the students’ motive for the march and sit-in, speculating that it occurred because Vice President Al Gore wasn’t declared the winner in the state of Florida.
“Our main concern involved the possible violation of the students’ right to vote. It had nothing to do with Gore appearing not to win,” Roussell says. “It was a nonpartisan demonstration to bring attention to our students whose voting rights were violated. It wasn’t just FAMU students but other people’s rights were violated during the election process and that’s what the protest was about.”
University officials applauded the students’ involvement in the electoral process that continued for weeks and was marred by lawsuits and appeals in state and federal court.
“Students were exercising their First Amendment rights. If they were not pleased [with the manner] in which the election was handled, they had a right to protest,” Sharon Saunders, a university spokeswoman, told Black Issues. “Our students are not apathetic, they get involved. We’ve always been proud of the desire of our students to get involved. This is not the first time.”
Students from Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College also gathered in silent protest. No major incidents were reported.
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