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Voting With Peers Helped Keep Turnout Strong In Bay County

Several people stand in line in a parking lot
Valerie Crowder, WFSU News
Voters and their families enjoy lunch at Panama City's Souls to the Polls event on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Organizers say the second Sunday was less busy than the first weekend of early voting Oct. 24 - 25.

Voting was a social affair for many residents in Bay County.

Some voters went with their immediate family members to the polls, and community block parties encouraged hundreds of Panama City residents to cast their ballots early.

Turnout in the county remained at 75 % - the same level it was during the last presidential election, according to the supervisor of elections’ office.

Voters at polling site in Lynn Haven Florida.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Voters enter Roberts' Hall in Lynn Haven to cast their Election Day ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

More county residents cast a ballot during this election - 93,422 - compared with the last one four years ago, when 88,708 people voted. The county’s number of registered voters has also increased since then.

Strong turnout locally aligns with what elections officials observed across the state. Preliminary elections results show statewide turnout at 77 %. That’s slightly up from previous elections.

In Bay County, President-elect Joe Biden got 27 % of the vote - almost three percentage points more than Hillary Clinton received in 2016. Support for President Trump remained at roughly 70% after all the votes were counted.

Statewide results won’t be certified until Nov. 17.

In Lynn Haven, Janna Naputi, her husband and their 18-year-old daughter cast their Election Day ballots together for Trump. “The last election was actually my first-time voting,” Naputi said. “I made sure that we came out again so our voices can be heard.”

Janna Naputi Election Day Voter.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Janna Naputi, 43, voted in a presidential contest for the second time on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. The first time she voted was in 2016.

Naputi’s 18-year-old daughter Arianna described feeling nervous the first-time voting. “I feel like I voted for the right person, not personally,” she said. Her mom then reminded her it was “for the country.” Arianna readily agreed.

Lisa Suggs, 55, brought her 20-year-old daughter to the town’s polling site. “We are a Republican family, but we wanted her to do her own voting,” she said. “We’ve just encouraged it from the beginning.”

Suggs said she voted for Trump, but she has “mixed emotions” about supporting him. “Trump can make some crazy statements and say some crazy things, but I do support my party.”

Her 15-year-old son is already looking forward to his first-time voting, though he won’t be old enough to cast a ballot for another three years, she said. “It’s important for families to instill the value of one vote can make a difference.”

Stories about families voting together aren’t at all surprising, said Matthew Pietryka, a political scientist at Florida State University. “So much of the things that drive people to participate in politics comes from the help that they get from their friends and family, but also from the social pressure that they get from their friends and family.”

Pietryka’s research largely focuses on how much one’s friends, family and neighbors can influence a person’s likelihood of voting.

“Even before children are old enough to vote - they are likely to be socialized by their parents or their caregivers in terms of what’s important, so families that place a high priority on political participation are likely to raise children who are going to vote.”

He helped lead an experiment at FSU that measured the probability that a student would cast a ballot for the first time if their roommate’s parents were regular voters.

“If you were assigned this high likelihood voter - so you never knew them before and suddenly you’re living with them - you’re about fourteen percentage points more likely to show up to vote in the election,” he said. “That’s suggesting that a lot of participation really is driven by people in your immediate proximity.”

In Panama City’s historic Glenwood neighborhood, Alex Torres, 30, brought his father with him to cast an early ballot. His father isn’t eligible to vote because he’s not a U.S. citizen. Torres said he planned to vote for Biden because he preferred the Democratic president-elect’s immigration plan.

“I’ve got my dad, my mom and my family,” Torres said. “I want to get them a green card, and I’m voting for someone who’s going to make [that process] easier.”

Alex Torres Voter Glenwood Community.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Alex Torres, 30, and his father stopped by the Souls to the Polls event before he voted early at the Glenwood Community Center on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.

Next to the Glenwood Community Center, families were enjoying shrimp and fish dinners, live DJ music, a youth choir performance, dancing and fellowship with neighbors and friends. During early voting, more than 2,500 voters cast ballots at the center, which was one of seven voting sites open in the county before Election Day.

The event was also for young children and teenagers. “We really want to imprint on them that voting is fun,” said Cecile Scoon, a local civil rights attorney who helped organize the event. “Voting is family.”

Biden Voters at Souls to the Polls Event.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Panama City residents Jerry Wyche and Derrick Robinson were among several volunteers at the Souls to the Polls event in Panama City on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.

Throughout the almost two-week early voting period, community organizer Mechelle Grady helped put on eight Souls to the Polls events in Franklin, Washington, Gulf and Bay Counties. “After they vote, they bring their families and come and get something to eat,” Grady said. “We’re encouraging them to be a part of their community’s political process.”

Representatives from local civil rights organizations - including Black Voters Matter, the Bay County NAACP, The House of Hope, Judos and Peters & Scoon Law Firm - chatted with voters, as they passed out ballot measure literature, T-shirts and signs.

Jamil Davis, another event organizer, is with Black Voters Matter. He attributes strong voter turnout in Glenwood to the community social events that have taken place throughout early voting.

“They see us here and they’re like, ‘Yo, what are ya’ll here for?’ ‘Souls to the Polls.’ ‘Ah, man. That’s right,’" Davis said. "And they go straight to Glenwood and vote and come back here and enjoy the festivities with the rest of us.”