Elections

Michelle Obama says ‘I’m frustrated, too’ as she rallies young Miami voters

‘I am tired of the daily chaos,’ Former First Lady Michelle Obama holds voting rally in Miami

Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaks in Miami as part of the "When We All Vote" rally in the University of Miami’s Watsco Center on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018.
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Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaks in Miami as part of the "When We All Vote" rally in the University of Miami’s Watsco Center on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018.

Careful not to punch too directly at the man who succeeded her husband in the Oval Office, former first lady Michelle Obama came to Coral Gables Friday on a get-out-the-vote mission in a state that understands the value of a single ballot like no other in the nation.

“Elections can be decided by just a few votes per precinct. Sometimes, they’re decided by just a handful of votes altogether. In Florida you all know something about this,” Obama, speaking in a state where 537 votes decided the 2000 presidency, said from a podium at the University of Miami Watsco center. “Nobody can say that their vote doesn’t matter. If they’re saying that, they just don’t understand the numbers.”

Wearing ripped jeans and a gray VOTE T-shirt, Obama spoke about being “frustrated” at “the pettiness, the meanness that too often dominates the political discourse.” She came to Miami with When We All Vote, a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote organization that led star-studded rallies on both coasts this week.

Obama, the co-chair of the organization, described a self-defeating cycle of political apathy, in which frustrated voters who sit out elections only become more frustrated with politics that increasingly don’t reflect their values. And, following speeches by singer Kelly Rowland and comedian Keegan-Michael Key, she did it in a way that might resonate with Generation Z.

“You wouldn’t give your crazy uncle the power to post a picture to your Instagram feed,” she said, speaking to a young and diverse crowd the organization estimated at around 6,000 people. “So why would you give a stranger the power to make far more important decisions in your life?”

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Michelle Obama speaks during the When We All Vote rally in the University of Miami’s Watsco Center on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Focused around Tuesday’s National Voter Registration Day, When We All Vote launched a week of events that began Monday in Las Vegas and ended Friday in Miami. The group is one of several well-funded machines, including the Parkland-based March For Our Lives, fueling voter drives around the country.

Early evidence shows that, at least in Florida, registration is up and the youngest voters are turning out to the polls in greater numbers.

Democrats like Obama are hoping that young and previously apathetic voters will help them seize control of the U.S. House and governor’s mansions across the country. They’re asking angry voters to channel their frustration into votes — not dissimilar to the way frustrated voters pushed Donald Trump into the presidency after Barack Obama.

Though When We All Vote is a nonpartisan organization, Friday’s event was attended by left-leaning groups like the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Engage Miami, the NAACP and Miami’s teachers’ union. Obama’s presence also gave it a partisan feel even as she avoided overtly partisan jabs and stressed: “I’m not telling anyone here who to vote for. I’m not stumping for any one candidate.”

“Some folks think the whole system is rigged, so why bother at all? Miami, I get it. I get being busy. I get being frustrated,” she said. “I’m frustrated, too.”

Hoping to drive home the direct impact that voting can have on families, Obama spoke about her father, who worked in a water-treatment plant in Illinois and despite his multiple sclerosis voted religiously, grabbing his crutches in order to walk into the church basement where he voted. She said, “He went to vote for the same reason he went to work: He did it to provide for his family.”

“He knew his vote was the only way he would be heard in the halls of power,” Obama said.

And she said voters in Miami, currently choosing a governor, U.S. senator, representatives in Congress, and state legislators, can change their own lives, too, at the voting booth.

“We gotta make voting trendy. We gotta hashtag it,” she said. “If you don’t take that power, if you don’t understand what that power means, then we’ll be back in that cycle. And we don’t want that for any of our young people.”

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