WASHINGTON — A determined Florida centenarian who had to make two trips and wait several hours to vote for President Barack Obama last fall joined first lady Michelle Obama for Tuesday’s State of the Union. Her resolve to cast a ballot became a symbol of early voting obstacles in the presidential election.
Desiline Victor, 102, of Miami, endured a weather-delayed flight to Washington on Monday in order to get to town for Obama’s address. She was among the guests seated in the House visitors’ gallery, an opportunity she called “a beautiful thing.”
During his address, Obama cited Victor as an example worth following, saying she was concerned about “whether folks like her would get to have their say.”
Also sitting in the House visitors’ gallery were:
—Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr. of Chicago, the parents of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot to death just days after performing in Washington during Obama’s inauguration.
—Haile Thomas, 12, of Tucson, Ariz., who helped start the HAPPY Organization, a group that produces online healthy cooking videos aimed at children.
—Alan Aleman, a Mexican immigrant who is one of the first people in Nevada allowed to remain in the country under an Obama administration initiative for immigrant children whose parents lack legal permission to be in the U.S. Aleman is pursuing a biology degree and hopes to be a doctor.
—Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers, the first Latina mayor of Avondale, Ariz. She was elected in 2006 after serving 14 years on the city council. Growing up, she picked cotton with her parents on farmland that is now the site of City Hall.
—Sgt. Carlos Evans, a U.S. Marine from Fayetteville, N.C., who lost both legs and his left hand during service that included three deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. The president signed Evans’ prosthetic arm when Evans previously visited the White House.
In October, Victor went to the polls on the first Sunday of early voting in Florida. That day, she had to make two visits to her voting precinct, and waited three hours on the first attempt, in order to cast her vote for Obama.
Her determination, despite the physical strain, inspired others to remain and endure up to six-hour waits.
“She just wants everyone to know she wants everyone to vote,” said Victor’s nephew, Mathieu Pierre-Louis, who translated her words from Creole. Her vote, she said through her nephew, is special. She said she loves Obama and will tell him so if she gets the chance.
As he was leaving the House chamber Tuesday after his speech, Obama raised the issue of voting delays with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an icon from the civil rights era.
“Nobody should have to wait seven hours. You already fought that fight,” the president told Lewis, who turns 73 next week.
A farmworker from Haiti, Victor was born in 1910. She arrived in the U.S. in 1989 and was naturalized in 2005. She first voted in the 2008 presidential election and cast her ballot for Obama.
A slew of states, including Victor’s home state of Florida, implemented new voting restrictions in the two years after Obama’s historic first election, in which black and Hispanic turnout reached record highs. The laws reduced early voting days, instituted rules requiring voters to show accepted forms of photo identification and curtailed some voter registration activities.
Obama again enjoyed overwhelming support from minority voters in his victory over GOP rival Mitt Romney last year.
Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a group that advocates for civil rights, said Victor’s story underscores the need to fix the voting system to ensure, among other things, that it accommodates elderly voters.
“It’s clear Ms. Victor’s story is a story that shows the tenacity of a voter to overcome barriers,” Dianis said. “Unfortunately there were dozens who didn’t get to vote because of problems.”