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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
Sign displayed at Madison Street Baptist Church in Starke, Fla. during presidential primary elections on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.
Sign displayed at Madison Street Baptist Church in Starke, Fla. during presidential primary elections on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

Nearly deserted Alachua County polls defined the 2024 presidential preference primary election March 19, highlighting low voter turnout and persisting racial disparities.

Alachua County Republican presidential preference primary voter turnout displays an overall decline since 2004, falling below the 2024 state average turnout of approximately 21.2%. 

As state ballot counts are finalized, the 17 remaining presidential preference primaries will take place nationally spanning the end of March through the beginning of August. The chosen Democratic and Republican candidates will be finalized prior to the November general presidential election.

The state's unofficial returns for the presidential preference primary were finalized March 23, and official returns are slated to be certified April 2 by the Florida Election Canvassing Commission. 

President Joe Biden was automatically listed as the state’s Democratic presidential nominee prior to the preference primary election day, leaving only registered Republicans with the choice to weigh in on their party candidates. 

Aaron Klein, Alachua County supervisor of elections communications and outreach director, said Florida is a closed primary state, meaning constituents could only vote for candidates aligning with their registered political affiliation.

“Folks are often surprised when they don’t receive a vote-by-mail ballot because they’re not registered as Republicans for this election,” Klein said. 

Multiple voting options were made available to local constituents, including mail-in ballots, early voting and attending the precincts on election day, he said. 

According to the Florida Division of Elections, 4,081 Alachua County constituents voted by mail and 2,012 voted early. 

Florida presidential preference primaries have historically seen a lower turnout than general presidential elections, according to the Florida Division of Elections, and the lack of a democratic ballot March 19 lowered local turnout further. 

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While Alachua County precincts officially closed at 7 p.m. on election day, their operations did not. Klein said doors remained open to anyone who joined the line prior to closing time in accordance with state law, ensuring precincts were accessible to those facing challenges casting their ballots. 

He highlighted the high concentration of students in Alachua County, a factor that poses similar voting challenges across areas containing major colleges and universities. 

“What tends to happen is a significant population of student voters will come to their election day polling place and realize that their address is not updated,” Klein said. 

While the issue of incorrect addresses can be fixed on election day, he said updating voter registration information entails a call to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office, a process that slows precinct lines and causes an influx of calls, creating a voting barrier for all locals.

“It slows down the process for that voter to be able to enter into the polling place completely and cast their ballot,” he said.

The UF Reitz Union is particularly vulnerable to this type of holdup as a student-populated precinct, he said. 

In addition to challenges faced by the Alachua County student voter population, race-related voting disparities persist into 2024, according to a public records request from the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office.

Alachua County white voters maintain an active status at a rate higher than their demographic proportion. While comprising approximately 59% of the population, white voters make up 68% of all active registered voters. Outside of American Indian, no other defined racial or ethnic group is registered at a rate higher than their demographic percentage.

In light of increased lack of faith in both state and national election transparency, Klein encouraged the local community to monitor the presidential preference primary proceedings. 

“We are certainly used to scrutiny,” he said. “We’re really comfortable with the public being involved in the process of conducting an election.” 

However, candidate rivalries and increased polarization have raised concerns regarding poll worker safety, he said. 

“It’s something we’re definitely paying attention to for 2024 because we know things can get a bit heated during presidential election years,” he said. 

Following recent election threats in Duval County and the Leon Supervisor of Elections advocating for poll worker safety, poll worker information is now exempt from public records requests under Florida statutes as of 2023. 

Voting should be taken seriously regardless of political affiliation, said Lizabeth Doebler, a poll watcher for the Alachua County Republican Party in the recent presidential preference primary.

“There’s so much that can go wrong,” she said. “It’s important that you can trust your votes are counted, that the people that are there working the polls are doing what they’re supposed to do.” 

According to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections, poll workers interact with and assist voters in casting ballots on election day while poll watchers only monitor election proceedings to ensure equitable results on behalf of a candidate or political party. 

Doebler, a registered radiologic technologist who also served as a poll watcher in 2020 and 2022, monitored the recent presidential preference primary at the Alachua County Agriculture and Equestrian Center precinct. 

Voter turnout seemed to dip compared to the elections she observed in past years as a poll watcher, she said. 

“It was low,” she said. “I think everybody knew the people that were going to be the nominees for the presidential election.” 

Voting in the preference primary may have become an afterthought considering that the presidential Republican nominee already seemed statistically set, she said. 

Doebler said she cast her ballot in person on election day, a process she described as “easy and very accessible.” 

Alachua County Republican presidential preference primary voter turnout hit 52% during former President Donald Trump’s first run in 2016, but upon the return of Trump for his third race, 2024 Republican turnout for the county hit a 16-year low of approximately 19%, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

Registered Democrats in Florida were not offered the option to vote in the 2024 preference primary. Only Delaware chose to follow the same course of action, cementing Florida as one of two states that didn’t offer a blue ballot in favor of automatically naming Biden the Democratic nominee. The Delaware Department of Elections canceled their presidential preference primary entirely March 19 due to no contested races for either party.

Alachua County Democratic Party Vice Chair J. Maggio said the party’s involvement in the preference primary was relatively thin without a Democratic ballot. However, he said engaging left-leaning voters was still a priority, especially as it relates to the November general presidential election. 

“If you have no primary, it’s hard to do that,” he said. “We are just redoubling our efforts on Get Out the Vote.”  

The Alachua County Republican Party took an active role in the March 19 presidential preference primary by providing poll watchers and encouraging voter turnout through both social media and physical mail, said Stafford Jones, Alachua County Republican Party former chair and current state committeeman.  

“It was kind of a practice run for the November elections,” he said. 

Jones said he personally requested to vote-by-mail in advance of the recent presidential preference primary, filled out his ballot upon its arrival in the mail and tracked its delivery to the counting location online to ensure it would arrive safely. 

“I’m a big believer in banking your vote,” he said. “Get it done so that come election day something isn’t going to happen that’s going to deprive you of your ability to vote.” 

The process was simple and streamlined, he said.  

Despite not voting due to the lack of a blue ballot March 19, UF College Democrats President Sabrina Briceno said she was still attentive to barriers to voting in the recent election, especially those impacting students.

“A lot of students we find are registered to vote, but they’re still registered at home,” she said. “They’re not going to go and drive three, four or five hours to go vote.” 

With the recent presidential preference primary serving as a reminder of the elections to come, she said the campus organization will assist in the registration of democratic students. 

“If we get as many students to vote during early voting, the day of the election [is] less hectic for the polls and for the poll staff,” she said. 

As an early voter in past elections herself, Briceno said her experiences casting her ballot at the Reitz Union precinct went smoothly. 

Following the results of the March 19 Florida presidential preference primary, the 2024 general presidential election is slated for November 5.  

Contact Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp at Follow her on X rylan_digirapp.

Contact Diego Perdomo at Follow him on X @diegoperdomoaq.

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Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp

Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp is a second-year journalism and environmental science major covering enterprise politics. She previously worked as a metro news assistant. Outside of the newsroom, you can usually find her haunting local music venues.

Diego Perdomo

Diego Perdomo is a senior journalism major and the Summer 2024 Digital Managing Editor. He previously worked as the data reporter, graphic design editor and a graphic designer. Outside of his studies, he enjoys reading comic books and biking, wondering how things would be outside of the car-dominated society.

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