Last weekend we dropped a large chunk of change at Lowe’s when we purchased a washer and dryer–they had enticed us into this sale by soliciting our patronage with a 10% off coupon.
This weekend we experienced a reversal: we were instructed by Lowe’s to leave the premises because we were “soliciting.”
Our crime? We were standing outside an entrance (not blocking it or harassing anyone) holding up clipboards that read on the back: “Register to Vote Here.”
On the front of our clipboards were Florida Voter Registration Applications. We wore no signs of political affiliation and neither did we hand out any materials. We were there with one civic purpose: to facilitate voter registration for anyone interested.
But even when this was explained, the Lowe’s representative told us, “I just don’t want you here.” We had to immediately move, although wandering the parking lot would be okay (because presumably it was owned not by Lowe’s but by several stores).
We complied. But although Lowe’s, other stores, HOAs, and even individual homeowners are entitled to have and to enforce a policy of “No Solicitation,” we were, in fact, NOT soliciting.
To solicit implies a commercial or financial interest. It means to peddle, to sell, to offer for sale, or to ask for help. It can also be defined as urging a cause strongly, attempting to entice, or offering to have sexual relations with someone for money.
Just to be clear, we were not soliciting in any of those forms! (Can you imagine: “Hey there baby, want to fill out this form with me…”)
The adoption of non-solicitation policies is understandable; they prevent people from standing outside a store like Lowe’s selling their own products, promoting their own services, or asking customers for cash. Sometimes “canvassing” is included in these prohibitions, but canvassing is different as it involves pressing an idea or asking someone for an opinion or for support. (Members of religious groups who preach their faith door-to-door are sometimes said to be canvassing, not soliciting.)
Voter registration is none of that. In fact, it is considered a neutral civic activity that is usually exempted from non-solicitation policies, rules, and statutes because all it involves is offering people an opportunity to register to vote by filling out a government document.
But for four of the people who talked to us today, that was a hollow offer. They had been convicted in Florida of a felony, and Florida law therefore prohibits them from becoming a registered voter—not only when serving their time, not only during probation, but even after that. In reality, for most convicted felons, they have lost their right to vote in Florida forever (unless they go through a complicated appeal process that results in the right being restored.) In Florida over 1.5 million people are disenfranchised in this way; i.e., over 10% of the voting age population. This is the highest rate of disenfranchisement in the nation.
For us today, that was the real crime.