The County that Could Swing Florida

Duval County's new swing status is fodder for the local Democratic Party.

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Twenty-nine electoral votes. That is what Florida offers to presidential candidates. The jackpot of swing states. A deciding factor in most presidential races and the 2020 election seems to be no different; attempts to turn Texas purple notwithstanding. However, while Florida is distinctively purple in Presidential contests, the state is staunchly red when it comes to the government run out of Tallahassee. That in large part has to do with the identity of the electorate in various parts of the state including Northeast Florida with Duval as its largest county. 

The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won Duval County was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Here now in 2020, Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden could be on the cusp of carrying the county. 

Dr. Michael Binder, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Florida, says a Biden win in Duval county is telling and comparable to the 2018 gubernatorial race.

“Gillum carried Duval County, and I certainly think it’s possible that Biden can as well,” Binder said. 

Though he was quick to mention that even if Biden clenched Duval County, it’s certainly not the end of Republican reign in local government. What he did say is that a potential Biden win in Duval signifies what is happening in the state in terms of population as well as the movement—or lack thereof—to mobilize voters on both the left and the right. 

Binder said, “We’re turning a little bit bluer organically.”

This organic growth toward the left is due to both immigration from South and Central America and the migration of young adults from other parts of the country to the state for work. Binder, who heads the Public Opinion Research Lab at UNF and is contributing to national polling methodology with the New York Times, said these patterns balance out the influx of snowbirds to the state who tend to be older, white, retirees with a republican bent that turn out to vote in large numbers. 

“We’ve had these kind of counteracting forces over time and Duval doesn’t get a ton of snowbird activity and because of that we’re kind of a cleaner test of the state about what it looks like and where it’s going,” Binder said. 

But just because there is a burgeoning new populace in the county and the state does not mean that they will automatically show up to vote on election day. That’s where voter registration drives come in, and thanks to the many ways the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted daily life this area is no different. 

“Most new voting registration pushes during election years come from volunteers that are out and about,” Binder said. “They’re standing out in front of Publix, they’re going to local events, they’re going to the county fair, and they’re signing people up to register to vote. Well, all of that’s off; none of that’s happening.”

With voter registration numbers somewhat stagnant Democrats still have a competitive edge. In 2016, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by about three percentage points. In 2020, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than six percentage points.

“There’s been a big difference as far as increases in Democratic registration relative to Republicans in Duval County.” Binder said. “This is not the same county that it was in 2016.”

The only question is will those registrants vote. For Binder, the question is specific to one demographic. The so-called “Black vote.” 

“There are several precincts that have a decent sized Black population and saw some pretty dramatic declines from 2012 to 2016,” Binder said. “If you look back to 2012, the turnout for both whites and Blacks in Duval County was just over 75 percent. They were nearly identical. In 2016, white turnout was almost 78 percent and Black turnout was barely 71 percent. That’s a significant change.”

Those dramatic declines are double digit drops in voter turnout in the four years between the re-election of President Obama and the election of President Trump. In an effort to re-energized and mobilize all voters, community curator, Shawana Brooks, has called on Jacksonville’s arts community in an effort to get out the vote. 

Shawana Brooks, CEO and founder of 6ft away gallery.
Shawana Brooks, CEO and founder of 6ft away gallery.

As the founder and CEO of the 6ft Away Gallery, she is managing the gallery’s Color Jax Blue project which is anchored by a large, multi-sided mural at the corner of 18th and Myrtle on the Northside. 

Brooks said, “Between the visual artists, we have 10 of those and we wanted equal representation of Black women and men and then the same thing we have 10 amplifiers which are also artists, but they’re artists of different disciplines work together with the visual artists to push out their messaging.”

That messaging is loud and clear: on one side of the mural that proclaims from two stories in the air, ”Black Votes Matter.” It is a purposefully distinct and stark contrast to the Black Lives Matter murals that have been painted on the ground across the country in the aftermath of this latest wave of racial violence.

“We know consistently through the years that people who have been killed, where their lives didn’t matter, was because they were executing their civic duties,” Brooks said. “That’s through our DNA. That trauma is being passed. So I really wanted to not put something like that on the ground. I think something like that needs to be uplifted, needs us to be able to look at it, needs people to be able to see it as a consistent reminder.” 

That consistent reminder runs throughout Color Jax Blue’s entire project even down to its name. While on the surface it may seem the project is decidedly left, Brooks says Color Jax Blue is about reclaiming the symbolism of the United States. 

“Our flag, all of those colors have a symbol, have contextual meanings behind them. The blue stands for justice.” 

With that symbolism guiding their work, Brooks says, Color Jax Blue is not backing any one candidate, idea or platform. She just wants people to go vote, especially in the Black community. 

“Jacksonville has always been the hell mouth when it comes to the electoral college and really knowing that the fight and the turning point has to come from Duval County.”

Binder said that potential turning point will come down to people making sure that they not only vote, but vote the right way, considering this year will be an election with an increased number of mail-in ballots. 

“No matter how voters vote, whether it’s by mail, or early, in person, or if it’s on election day, make sure that if you’re doing it by mail that you sign your name, you fill the ballot out correctly, and return it ahead of time. You can’t just mail this thing off on election day, it won’t get there. You’ve got to mail this thing at least a week before the election so that the mail has time process and the supervisor can receive it by election day, otherwise your vote won’t count if it shows up on the supervisor’s doorstep on the fourth.”

And while there are concerns of voter suppression through the mail-in ballot system in other states, Dr. Binder, says Florida’s mail-in voters are traditionally heavily Republican, which is why the state’s process has not come under as much partisan scrutiny. However, that does not mean that there isn’t a potential divide as some minority and Democratic leaning voters may prepare to vote by mail for the first time. 

“The people that are more inclined to have their mail ballots thrown out because they didn’t come in time, or they botched the signature and didn’t get it fixed, are first-time mail voters and younger people and people of color,” Binder said. 

The election is happening now with mail-in ballots being sent out and returned across the state and the two week early voting period underway. With the increase in registrations and the extension of the registration period due to a computer system overload it is clear there is high interest in the election that will lead to high expectations for the results come election night. Though Binder said anticipations should be tempered. 

“I’m not convinced that they’re going to call the races, but I think we’ll have a pretty good idea,” he said.

Locally, key races to be on the lookout for include Congressional District 4 between former TV anchor, three-time breast cancer survivor and local philanthropist Donna Deegan and former Sheriff John Rutherford. Other races include the clerk of cours, and issues such as allowing the city council to appoint and potentially remove members of the JEA board and the half-penny sales tax for Duval County school improvements. 

This general election then is as much about the future of the country as it is about the future of the county from school improvement to allowing all couples—same sex couples included—to hold their nuptials at the county courthouse. 

Brooks says the future of the county and the country is another reason why the Color Jax Blue mural exists, to honor people—especially Black women—who’ve been doing the work to mobilize their communities on the issues from gun violence to voting. 

“Black women have always been at the forefronts of leading their families to the polls,” Brooks said. “Getting you out to go, talking to you, being involved, thinking about the reasons why you need to vote, and encouraging their men and their family to go out there and do it.”

She believes that this November the onus will be on Black women again to save the nation. Binder’s own concern about which way “the Black vote” will swing the county and the country also comes down to Black men and youth. 

“Are they going to show up for Biden and Kamala Harris?” Binder asked rhetorically. “You know UNF’s precinct, which is 1105, we had almost a six percentage point decrease in Black votes, in the rate of the Black vote in 2012 and 2016.” 

This concern does not include the potential votes of former felons who were allowed to register upon completing the conditions of their release, fines—that they may or may not know about— included. 

Dr. Binder said, “If you just look at socio-demographically, the folks that are more inclined to register, more inclined to vote and turn out, tend to be older, tend to be more invested in their communities, tend to have more money, and to have more education. All of those types of things. And if you look at the felon population, they tend to be younger, they tend to be disproportionately male, and they tend to fit a lot of categories which are a little bit lower on the likelihood to turn out and vote.” 

All these caveats considered, Binder believes Florida’s presidential race will come down to one or two points.

“So, literally every vote counts, and it’s important for your readers to see that, ‘Yeah their vote matters,’ and it matters a great deal in a state like Florida which is so pivotal for the election.”

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