By Brenda McFarlane / July 1, 2010
Have you seen the tent set up on the grass at Newport and Abbott with a bunch of scrawled signs along with one official sign reading: “Republicans Register Here”? I wouldn’t think of OB as a bastion of unregistered republican voters (despite one or two retailers who treat our town as just another exploitable resource)
I admit to being a bit frightened of die-hard — correction — all Republicans, so I was a bit worried about who was manning the tent as I approached. Each sign was crammed to the edges with hand written words and phrases competing urgently for attention. It turns out the sole visionary for the endeavor is Mike, a pleasant and energetic old-timer to OB who is passionate about convincing all US citizens to exercise their rights and responsibilities as voters.
He’s been by the sea wall for 10 days now chatting with anyone who wants to, writing signs for those who don’t, and trying to get voters to register.”Use it Our Lose it” he proclaims, and “If you’re too young to vote, make sure your parents are voting.” He has been getting registrations, maybe averaging about 20 a day, but sometime a lot more.
It’s clear that his favorite mission is to get the homeless and those who have served time for felonies to not only know they still have a constitutional right to vote but a civic duty to do so. One of his slogans is “Winner or Whiner”.
Mike clearly loves his job. He says to me with animation:
“You should see these guys…before I talk with them they’re walking like this…” Mike slumps his shoulders and shuffles his feet. “But, once they know they are legally allowed vote and they’ve registered with me, they walk like this…” now he shows me the walk transformed, chest puffed out and chin high. Mike sums this up with a smile and a tap to my arm “Registering makes them feel GOOD about themselves.”
He tells me about the Stagehand working the OB fair on Saturday who called over at Mike and said something like “It’s all good for people who can vote but I’m a convicted felon and have lost my right to vote forever. What about people like me?” This is the moment Mike lives for, the moment when he can give someone the good news that, despite previous wrong doings or the lack of a home, they remain full fledged citizens of the United States and have the right to vote, in California that is.
Sadly, too many California’s believe they are legally prohibited from voting and, if they vote and are caught, they might be criminally charged with a felony. I talked with a friend who is an ex-convict and asked her what she thought her voting rights were. She told me she doesn’t think she is legally allowed to vote but added, “I vote anyway, fuck ‘em!”
Unfortunately it’s all too common for people who can vote to think they can’t. According to the American Civil Liberties Union cited all kinds of prohibitive voting laws, practices and misinformation across the U.S. that impact ex-felons voting. In a 2008 ACLU report, they suggest an estimated 5.3 million people are prevented from exercising their right to vote as citizens in the U.S.
Still, in California the lifetime disenfranchisement of people with criminal records was struck down in 1973. So why does the misinformation still survive?
In 10 states, a felony conviction can result in a lifetime ban from voting. Many people aren’t aware that voting rights are mandated by state laws, so they are never made aware that their right to vote is reinstated when they move out of a restrictive state. Worse, because they are unaware, they are very likely to innocently spread misinformation by warning ex-felons not vote or risk criminal charges.
But it’s not just ex-convicts who don’t know their rights in California, The ACLU found that there was widespread failure to provide adequate information about the voting rights within the Secretary of State’s Office and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
However, the registration card seems clear—it says you are allowed to vote if you are “not in prison or on parole for a felony.” It is hard to understand why there’s still a problem but consider the complexity of the California penal system.
The ACLU reports that” at least 500 felony offenses populate California’s Penal Code including numerous nonviolent offenses, such as vandalism of $400 or more, marrying under false personification, and counterfeiting.” and 300 more crimes might be called felonies- or not – according to the judge’s discretion, including property or drug offenses. The volume of felony offenses actually barred 25,000 California’s from legally voting in 2008 but who knows how many more people were confused about their rights to vote.
According to Mike, he registers 3 or 4 ex–convicts everyday who had no idea they were legally allowed to vote.
And then, there are the unregistered, disenfranchised homeless. Ask almost anyone and they’ll guess that you can’t vote if you don’t have an address, and they’d be right except the definition of address is more liberal than most people know. As one of Mike’s signs says, you can give your address as “a cross street, marina, boat, slip or ship”. Looking at the registration form, on line 6 I see an empty box preceded by the instructions; “If you do not have a street address, describe where you live”. Seems to me the address “Ocean Beach Pier – Lower Level” would suffice and so, I’ve learned, homeless people can vote and Mike is spreading the word.
However, it’s not all altruism for Mike, who tells me he was once in “building and home ownership” until he fell victim to a “Theft of Title” scheme and spent time homeless. He tells me he is being paid to register voters, well, sort of. He is actually paid by the Republican Party of San Diego Committee (RPSDC) from 3 to 10 dollars per Republican registrant. He quickly adds that he registers everyone, no matter their affiliation but he only gets paid for the Republican ones.
Perhaps it was the Meg Whitman brochures on the table that led me to think that the Whitman Party was funding this registration drive but when I called Whitman’s headquarters, Brandon nicely explained to me that they let the party deal with such things.
Like a dumbass, I called the San Diego Republican Party to find out how it’s funded and the guy who answered kindly refrained from saying “Who do you think pays for it? The Republican Party stupid” and instead he wisely advised me to talk to one of his higher ups. Calling the republicans made me a little paranoid and I didn’t want to get Mike in any trouble so I dropped it.
Next, I called the Registrar of Voters to find out about the legality of paying for registrants and I asked about the laws. The nice woman sweetly pointed out to me it was that it was completely legal because no law says it isn’t. Oh. It seems a very odd mixture of money and voting rights to me but I grew up in Canada so I sometimes have strange ideas (I am a US citizen though and vote, in case you’re curious)
Mike tells me a lot of people think he isn’t even allowed to set up a registration booth here at the beach, even the lifeguards had to make a few calls to make sure everything was allowed, which it was. But this brings me to the big question “Why here in O.B.?”
“Because,” Mike smiles as the sea breeze tussles his hair, “it’s a helluva lot nicer to work here then my old spot by Home Depot. Plus, I’m from around here, in fact, I helped catch the guys that assaulted Mark and pushed him off the sea wall a couple years ago.”
This sounds like an interesting story too but I don’t pursue it because it is one of those rare moments when life presents me with a moment of delightful irony. I simply enjoy the notion of this ex-homeless guy registering homeless people and ex-convicts and being paid to do it by the Republican Party. Sweet.
Mike isn’t sure how long he’ll be here registering people but I urge you to go down to register or bring a friend who isn’t yet registered to his tent at the end of Newport. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to see you, no matter what your party affiliation. As a treat, ask to see his notebook of sign slogans, he has a true talent for writing them.
Only in OB.
Ed: Brenda McFarlane is a new blogger for the OB Rag. This is her first post. She and her hubby bought a condo in OB five years ago and have decided to pitch their tent here for good. Please welcome her to the blog, and we look forward to more of her delightful insights into OB.