Oct. 29, 2004 Though Virgin Islanders do not have a vote in the presidential election, two St. Thomas attorneys are traveling to Florida Saturday to take a role in the election process.
Karin Bentz and Julita de Leon have been given assignments by the Democratic National Committee as poll watchers in Dade County, Fla. The assignment is part of the national "Lawyers for Kerry-Edwards" campaign.
Bentz heard about the prospect when she met a New York attorney in August. "When I heard about the campaign, I asked her to put me on the list. I had felt completely powerless, disenfranchised," Bentz said Friday. "Now, I'm really looking forward to it it will be fun."
And not only fun, Bentz said she feels she will be doing something she believes in. "I have felt the need to do something about the erosion of people's rights since Sept. 11." A copy of the Bill of Rights occupies a prominent spot in Bentz's office reception room.
Bentz asked her associate de Leon to come along. "It's a great opportunity," de Leon said. "When I applied to law school, I wrote on my application that I wanted to change the world."
She added, with a little smile, "I was on the student review admissions committee, and most of the applicants put down they want to change the world, one way or another."
De Leon's mother is from St. Lucia, and her father from Puerto Rico. She said, "There are lots of people like me – a language minority, gender minority and phenotype minority." She explained that in this case, phenotype means the way people look, the outward, physical manifestation, as opposed to race. In her case she bears traits from a mixed ethnic background.
De Leon speaks Spanish, French and Creole. Though they cannot say exactly where they will be stationed, the pair will be in Dade County, which has a large Spanish-speaking population.
Both women have strong feelings about their country and about President George W. Bush.
"To the extent that Bush is an ideologue, he cannot be a leader," said de Leon. "I am concerned about his court appointments. This is one of the most important elections of my lifetime; I am concerned about his policies. I think the Bill of Rights is in jeopardy."
Bentz concurred. "As a member of the Human Rights Campaign, I care about the erosion of peoples' rights under this administration. I am shocked at the national debt. And I am very concerned about our standing in the international community."
An avid marathoner her office walls are equally decorated with law degrees and marathon plaques Bentz was in the Paris marathon earlier this year. "I had a sleeveless top with the American flag on it and, finally, I decided not to wear it running with 35,000 Frenchmen who do not think highly of America. It was a sad decision."
The Lawyers for Kerry-Edwards Web site says:
"It is a great injustice to us all when African-Americans are denied their fundamental right to vote. On Election Day in your cities, my campaign will provide teams of election observers and lawyers to monitor elections and enforce the law."- John Kerry
Lawyers for Kerry-Edwards is working with the DNC's Voting Rights Institute to organize thousands of attorneys across the country to be in every polling place on Election Day and to educate voters about their ballot, their voting machine and the voting process.
Bentz allowed that they have begun their training already over the Internet and through a teleconference call.
Training will be done in Florida on Sunday. Neither attorney is licensed to practice in Florida. Bentz said, "Only attorneys licensed in Florida will be allowed inside the polls, so we will sit outside to answer questions, basically we will troubleshoot."
Bentz and de Leon have been busy boning up on Florida election law, which after the 2000 election, must be a daunting task.
Already there is trouble in Florida over voting matters. A number of newspaper sources on the Web have current stories. A Thursday Knight-Ridder story said, "Broward's top election official, stung by the controversy over slow-to-arrive absentee ballots, struggled Thursday to regain the confidence of thousands of angry voters who are still waiting for ballots four days before the election."
A Thursday Associated Press story may auger ill for poll watchers. The article said, "Some worry that voters will be intimidated by the presence of the monitors and not even bother casting a ballot. Others fear boorish observers in crowded polling places could spark a riot."
However, Bentz and de Leon are not at all deterred. If anything, it whets their appetite for involvement. "I'm really looking forward to being a part of the process," said Bentz. "And this is on our own time and our own nickel."
If you would like to know all about the legal training for poll watchers, go to dnclegaltraining.org . But there's a catch. You can't get in without a password, and nobody the Source knows is giving those out.
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