MIAMI, Fla. — Sonia Bethel, a minimum-wage worker, immigrant and mother of eight children — all without health insurance — was the first voter in Florida’s early voting here. In Miami-Dade County alone, 12,000 people cast their ballots on the Oct. 18 opening day.

Bethel became a U.S. citizen 18 months ago and was overjoyed to vote for the first time. After voting, she came out of the polls and cheered to the hundreds of labor and community forces gathered for the “Early Voting Counts” rally here, saying, “All those who are eligible, go out and vote.”

Bethel told the World she voted for Kerry and for State Amendment 5, a ballot initiative that would increase Florida’s minimum wage. “Women especially need to vote and get our views out,” she said. Two years ago, she and her four eligible children were taken off Florida’s “Kidcare,” a program for uninsured children, without notice. Bethel’s job has no health insurance.

The “Early Voting Counts” rally was part of a statewide effort to guarantee no repeat of 2000, with its widespread voter disenfranchisement.

Wearing black “You have the right to vote” shirts, dozens of election protection volunteers were on hand to assist voters. One volunteer, John Ratliff, told the World, “Sadly some people want to push back freedom again today. In the 2000 debacle, racial profiling was used to prevent mainly African Americans votes from counting. But labor and many others are united to fight that battle again.”

State Sen. Tony Hill, a leader of Florida’s movement to protect the vote, told the World, “There’s more evidence this week of systematic tampering with African Americans’ vote.” Hill said newspapers across the state reported that the governor knew their list of felons purged from the voter rolls was a fraud. “In 2000 we took a lickin’, but we keep on tickin’. 2004 will be the big payback. That’s why we did the big voter registration. The key to winning is to build our base.” Hill is also a leader of the “Yes on 5” bus tour, which hit the road this week, doing three rallies a day at schools, churches and libraries across the state to get the word out to vote early and on the minimum wage hike.

Initiated by ACORN and Floridians for All, the minimum wage amendment calls for raising the state minimum wage to $6.15 an hour. The groups’ Herculean efforts garnered almost one million signatures to put the amendment on the ballot and also registered 212,000 new voters. “The minimum wage issue with Amendment 5 is another way to draw people out to vote,” Hill said.

The national minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. At the last debate Sen. John Kerry promised to raise the federal minimum to $7.00 an hour in two years. In contrast, President George Bush does not support a minimum wage hike and avoided answering the question in the presidential debate.

The rally held in front of the Miami-Dade government center signaled a surging mass movement here to get out the vote and to protect it. Young people and the Hip Hop revolution are part of this voter movement. Reverend Lennox Yearwood of Russell Simmons Hip Hop Summit led a group of youth dressed in red “Voices for Working Families” T-shirts, chanting, “Let’s go vote!” Other young people clapped and danced the electric slide to a DJ’s music, chanting, “I am a vote!”

South Florida AFL-CIO president Fred Frost greeted the festive rally. “This is the vote of our lifetime,” he said. If not for the stolen election of 2000, Florida might have “one million more people in good jobs, 5,000 more people with health care, 4 million not in poverty today,” Frost said.

Adora Obi Nweze, Florida NAACP president, urged the crowd to vote and to vote for the minimum wage increase. “If we don’t vote, we surely won’t count.”

“Early voting makes a difference,” said Janet Reno, former U.S. attorney general. “Now is the time to vote for health, vote for well-funded school system to get people into good jobs.”

“There’s lots of things to vote for, like Amendment 5, to increase the minimum wage,” Reverend Al Sharpton told the crowd. “If the ballot book looks thick, it’s because we have thick problems and need thick solutions.”

The next day, after the excitement of casting her first ballot ever, Sonia Bethel couldn’t go to work. “My son had an asthma attack, couldn’t sleep all night. I can’t pay for a doctor and I don’t want him waiting at the emergency room. So, I’m sitting with him for now.

“With a dollar increase, I could have a little more food for my kids, or when they’re sick, I could send them to a doctor,” she said.

When asked to how it felt to vote, Bethel said, “There’s a new spirit in the air. You can feel it.”

The author can be reached at here for Spanish text