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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Alachua County residents prepare for presidential primaries, discuss low turnout rates

Practicing active voting can be challenging, community shares

Lorraine Rawls grew up in Alachua County and has performed her civic duty since she turned 18. The 43-year-old Gainesville resident and mother has found her experience voting to be easy, but she also recognizes the common problems people face when voting. 

“There's just the struggle to get everyone who is eligible registered and up to date on where their precinct is,” she said.

With presidential preference primary voting occurring March 19 and early voting between March 9-16, the turnout is expected to be quiet this cycle with only Republicans choosing a candidate in Florida. 

Despite the slow pace, the cycle crucially contrasts from 2020’s pandemic shutdown as well as the implementation of Senate Bill 90, which required voters to renew mail-in ballots after every voting cycle prior to the four-year valid request.

This election season reminds Alachua County residents to inform themselves about new legislation and be mindful of deadlines. Turnout for primaries tends to be lower because citizens may not participate as often as the general elections due to a lack of knowledge on the candidacy, policies and importance of their vote. The process can also be overwhelming, eliciting fear rather than advocacy. 

Communications and Outreach Director of Alachua County’s Supervisor of Elections Office Aaron Klein said it’s important for citizens to organize themselves in preparation for the general election.

“The biggest thing that our office is always going to emphasize is that it's really important that voters look ahead and make a plan for how they're going to get involved,” he said. “Since 2020, quite a few things about Florida election law have changed and voters may not be fully aware of that.”

Klein said one of the biggest changes in Florida is SB 90, which causes voters to renew mail-in ballots, and citizens may not be aware of changes because it’s common for voters to go silent during the primaries but still actively participate during the general elections in November. 

There are about 40,000 registered Republicans in Alachua County. As of March 15, 5,000 have voted in the primary, he said.

Another concern in Florida is catering to the voices of the international population. Klein also believes citizens born outside the United States or undergoing the naturalization process unable to exercise votes still play vital roles in election turnouts, he said. 

No state constitutions explicitly state noncitizens can participate in state or local elections but as of June 2023, Florida is one of the seven states specifying noncitizens may not participate in state or local elections. 

Klein said he’s spoken with UF international students who want to get involved, and he believes advocating for their beliefs, challenging policies and attending meetings can make a difference.

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Outreach and civic engagement is a continued effort through the County’s Supervisor of Elections Office. The office has participated in outreach work with other organizations like the League of Women Voters of Alachua County.

League of Women Voters of Alachua County President Janice Garry said outreach is one way the league is informing citizens. 

Garry started a subcommittee titled Get Out the Vote. The purpose is to target populations of underrepresented voters, who may have little to no knowledge of the process and need the extra encouragement to become more involved. 

“It's something I created because the importance of this election is just so high,” she said. 

Through the subcommittee, a ‘meet and mobilize’ group has allowed league members to collaborate with other organizations, preferably of diverse backgrounds. The league hopes to connect with people and organizations who it hasn't been in contact with in the past, she said.

League members have labeled different municipalities through the library branches and provide citizens with general information as well as merchandise like stickers and shirts to create more uplift. 

The league also wants to directly contact inactive voters to help them involve themselves again, including by mailing postcards. 

“The audience for those postcards is people who are registered voters because we have obtained records that they have signed petitions in the last couple of years, but they have not voted at the last two elections,” Garry said. 

About 1,600 postcards will be mailed out for this cycle, she said. 

Garry said it’s difficult to measure how effective these efforts are, but one way is to try and build a relationship with the voters they come across and follow up with them on their trajectory. 

Ensuring noncitizens get their voices heard is another significant element in voting season. 

Yareliz Mendez-Zamora, a 29-year-old UF alumna and the federal lead at the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said she knows voting season is important for migrants in Florida because legislation focuses on them despite the limitations they have in participating politically. 

“In South Florida and Miami, you will see that people are speaking Spanish or people are speaking Haitian Creole, but as you go up, and as you get into areas north of Orlando, that kind of is not the norm,” she said. 

Mendez-Zamora said education all around is important, but it’s especially important to migrant communities in North Florida, who don't have a representative population and don’t have immediate language access. U.S. citizens who could advocate for migrants might not be as knowledgeable on the topic either.

She also said it’s crucial to educate children of migrant families who were born in the U.S. and will eventually be able to support themselves through their vote.

“All we're hoping for is that they're voting in the interests of their family and community,” she said. “We're educating them so that they don't get sucked into a vacuum of just voting against themselves.” 

Florida Way is a messaging campaign that breaks down the roles migrants play in Florida’s social and economic structure. The campaign is especially important during voting season, Mendez-Zamora said. 

The campaign also speaks with people who’ve lived through the migration experience to understand the process of becoming civically informed and how they've passed that on to family and friends.

“This is why it's so important for you to talk to your kids about the importance of being civically engaged,” she said.

Rawls said her experience voting in Alachua County has been overall easy, and despite always voting in person, she believes if she had to use mail-in ballots, it would now “really be a hassle.”

“It would probably discourage me from voting by mail slightly,” she said. 

Rawls believes an issue the county could face is a displacement of voters. The student body is a component of the population but it’s constantly changing. It makes it more challenging to stay informed on policy as well as switching registration frequently. 

She also said families and individuals battling eviction or gentrification and being forced to leave their neighborhoods can find limits in their ability to vote. The county could break down the registering process and find ways to go about these obstacles. 

“I do feel like there could be a little more of an educational push towards letting people know what those options are,” she said.

Kathy Paterson, a 75-year-old Gainesville resident who votes in every election, also believes the student population is a key element in Alachua County’s voting population. 

Paterson used to tutor UF athletes, and she said a common pattern among them was little to no participation in voting because of a lack of knowledge of policy and voting rights.

“I used to encourage them to vote, and it was the last thing on their mind,” she said. “It was really hard to get through, so that was eye-opening.”

Paterson said she understands the busyness of university life, and she believes it’s only more difficult with how confusing amendments and policies are expressed. 

“I think a lot of people do kind of resist voting sometimes because they're afraid they'll feel dumb or something because they don't understand everything,” she said. 

Paterson believes the legislation with mail ballots can make things more complicated, especially for elderly voters. 

She also said she wishes there was another way to confirm a valid vote besides matching signatures because she struggles with Parkinson's disease.

“Pretty soon you won't be able to recognize my signature,” she said. “So I am going to have to deal with that.”

Paterson believes through restrictive legislation, Florida has instilled fear into people from targeted minority groups, causing them to leave the state instead of permitting them to keep fighting for their voice.

“I know many people who are gay or trans have left, you know,” she said. “It’s pretty sad.”

Alachua County does its best to encourage voting despite the state, she said.

“I think they do everything they can in Florida as a state to discourage people and make it harder for them to vote,” she said. “We should make it easier to vote.” 

Contact Nicole Beltran at nbeltran@alligator.org. Follow her on X @nicolebeltg.

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Nicole Beltran

Nicole Beltran is a second-year journalism and economics major. This is her first semester as the race and equity reporter. She has previously worked as a translator and editor for El Caimán. In her free time, she enjoys watching movies, trying new foods and drawing.


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