Black voters in Leon County analyze the last election from every angle
Local political candidates made significant efforts to get Black voters to the polls in Leon County’s midterm election. But the turnout in predominantly Black precincts was low -- which some say is a trend. One group is admitting failure and forging ahead.
As Election Day loomed, U.S. Congressman Al Lawson convened elected officials and church leaders for a Souls to the Polls push on Tallahassee’s south side. Mayor John Dailey blanketed the area with billboards and sign-wavers. But the turnout was disheartening, said City Commissioner Curtis Richardson on Election Night.
“...and at my own precinct where at 2:30 this afternoon only 200 people had voted,” Richardson says. “And I know that there has been extensive outreach in the African American community: telephone calls, flyers, people actually going through the community, knocking on doors…”
Bethel AME Church on Orange Avenue, Richardson’s precinct, ended up with 716 votes, counting early voting and mail-ins. That’s also where Lawson, who lost his bid for reelection, spoke. He told community leaders that without an African American representing them in Congress, their issues would get short shrift. It was much the same throughout South City, while in Northeast Tallahassee, the predominantly white precincts were drawing voters by the thousands. Although his mayoral candidate won, Richardson wasn’t happy with the Black turnout.
“It just seems like it’s been very difficult to generate interest in this midterm election when there are so many issues on the ballot that negatively impact the African American community,” he says.
Democratic consultant Steve Schale says the party did so badly statewide, it’s hard to single out one constituency.
“But I think the point that Curtis makes is fair, which is that by and large, the party does not do a good enough job of year-round outreach to the constituents that are important,” Schale says. “And that’s just one of the things that has to change for us to be competitive in Florida going forward.”
Reverend R.B. Holmes, pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, said the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic party had undermined each other.
“I think they spent so much time in a negative campaign, calling themselves progressive, and they took their eyes off the prize,” he says. “And instead of being enthusiastic, trying to encourage people to vote, they were encouraging people to vote against their own party.”
Neighborhood activist Talethia Edwards said the candidates hadn’t done enough for Black communities between elections.
“Our material conditions aren’t changing very much, and we’re seeing a lot of lean on African American communities for our vote,” Edwards says. “But in turn, once that election is over and the polls are closed, we need to see a lot more action in those areas.”
Bruce Strouble is the founder and chair of Tallahassee ALERT, which stands for African American Local Election Review Team. The group researched the local candidates in this election cycle and endorsed those backed by 70 percent of their participants. Strouble says the group knew going in that the Black vote would be, quote, “incredibly important.”
“We have been looking at what was going on in the previous elections, and we saw particularly that as white voters locally are divided, the Black vote becomes a swing vote within that community,” Strouble says. “And ultimately, when people feel entitled to the Black vote, like they don’t think there’s any work they have to do for it, there’s less political capital in the Black community. So we wanted to start to push that idea that you’re going to have to -- what is going to be done for these Black communities? So that you earn that vote.”
Strouble says social trust is at an all-time low.
“People just don’t have much faith in political collective efficacy, in the political system itself. They don’t believe that anyone elected is going to do anything,” he says. “I went out, tirelessly, talking to young people, talking to students, like, ‘What is it going to take to get you out here to vote?’ and they’re, like, ‘The system is corrupt and there’s nothing we can do.’ And I understand them, but I still feel we can’t put down the vote.”
The turnout at Florida A&M University, an historically Black institution, was 604 votes. Florida State University, a predominantly white institution, had 429 votes and more than 3 times the enrollment.
Although Leon County’s active Democratic voters outnumber Republicans roughly 2-to-1, the GOP turnout was 69 percent, while the Democrats managed 58 percent.
“You see the Republican turnout was significantly higher, right? But we’re going to see significant declines in our turnout -- or that’s what I’m projecting, based on how it looks, as this trend continues,” Strouble says. “There are ways, in certain areas people are getting around this. Particularly in Georgia with Stacey Abrams. Even though she was unsuccessful, she did show us some ways to break through. And we know that exciting candidates do mobilize the Black community as well.”
In the last midterm election, in 2018, former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, an African American known for his speaking skills, was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. The turnout at FAMU that year was 1,831, three times what it was there this year. But in many South City precincts, the vote totals were similar over the four years.
Strouble says the role of Tallahassee ALERT is to hold candidates accountable for their entire political lives, not just their commercials and flyers as Election Day nears.
“As we look at being better organized and more politically mature, these are things we want to guard ourselves against,” he says. “We have to put more critical thinking into our voting process. We’re not just voting because someone has shown up right now, during election time, and said, ‘Look, I’m here for you, I’m doing things for you.’ We want to track your entire record and keep that before the community.”
Strouble says those who feel disenfranchised cannot give up, that it takes education and understanding to navigate the political system. For now, he says, the Black vote has enough power to be sought after, but not enough to be earned. He intends to change that.