St. Petersburg Times Online: Election 2000
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To their regret, non-voters learn: It matters

The state's razor-thin presidential race margin has some people feeling guilty for staying away from the polls.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000

TAMPA -- The feeling that something wasn't quite right crept up on Diana Alva.

It started Tuesday morning. Her co-workers were chattering excitedly as they stood around the copy machines in the downtown Tampa Electric Co. building where Alva is a filing clerk. Everyone was talking about whom they had voted for.

Then Alva's boss casually asked if she had been to the polls yet.

By late afternoon, shirts everywhere sprouted those little round stickers, the ones that said, "Vote! Year 2000. I Did."

But it wasn't until late Tuesday night, when Telemundo TV was blaring that the presidential race hinged on a few thousand Florida votes, that regret set it. Bush was going to win!

"I was like, "Oh, my God. I should've gotten into it,' " said Alva, sitting in the sun on Franklin Street and popping Chex Mix during her lunch break Wednesday.

Alva, just about to turn 19, had not registered to vote. Neither had her friend and co-worker, Rhonda Tompkins, 28, sitting by her side.

Both Gore supporters, they had figured their ballots would be as likely to tip the balance in a presidential election as a speck of dirt would make a mountain of a hill. Why bother?

Hillsborough County has at least 186,000 people who could register but have never done so. That's about 27 percent of the county's eligible voters.

By Wednesday morning, Vice President Al Gore was 1,700 Florida votes from moving into the White House.

"I want to turn back time," said Alva.

"It's weird," Alva said. "Out of so many people, my vote counts. It really does."

Tompkins chimed in. "It's kind of weird it takes something like this to prove that it is important."

Neither Alva nor Tompkins had ever given much thought to voting. Tomkins was registered in Colorado as an Independent before moving to Hillsborough several years ago, but she had never pulled a polling booth lever. She was ready to shrug off this election as well.

The fact is, these are Rhonda Tompkins' concerns: Stretching her $12-an-hour paychecks. Raising her 8-year-old daughter right. Passing her night-school classes on office technology. Keeping her 1991 Plymouth minivan running.

Tompkins just didn't believe that George Bush, or Al Gore, for that matter, would take thoughts of her future with them to the White House.

The campaign issues hadn't captured her, either. The tax cut plans and Social Security proposals were too complicated to untangle. The biting TV ads repelled her, "like kids having cut-down wars." And besides, with all his vice presidential know-how, how could Gore lose?

Now, Tompkins is left ruminating about how much she dislikes the apparent winner. And how, she imagines, Bush wouldn't think much of her either.

"He's going to care more about the people who can fund him than people like me," she said.

Alva, who lives with her Peruvian parents in Town 'N Country and attends night classes at Hillsborough Community College for a psychology degree, wasn't any happier at the thought of a Bush victory.

"Bush was trying to get to the Spanish community just by speaking Spanish, not by caring about Spanish issues," she said.

But that wasn't enough to motivate her to figure out how to register to vote. She didn't even know whom to call about registering. Her boyfriend isn't registered. And her parents don't vote, she said.

"I regret it. I really do," Alva said.

It didn't help their gnawing guilt Wednesday that co-workers chided them.

Would officials possibly reopen the polls for people like them, they wondered aloud. Just this once, maybe?

"Do you know how many people are feeling the way we do?" Alva said.

"Kicking themselves," Tompkins finished.

- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or

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