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Group targeting Black, brown voters in Florida to make sure their votes count

The Coalition for Black and Brown Voter Access has fanned out across Leon, Gadsden, and Jefferson counties to increase voter turnout and fix rejected mail ballots in the final days of the 2020 campaign.

In Leon County, the group of four progressive organizations has targeted over 32,000 voters and said it has identified more than 50 ballots from Black and brown voters at risk of being rejected by the Leon County Supervisor of Elections.

Philip Jerez leads nearly two dozen volunteers and workers chasing voters and ballots in ten counties along the I-10 corridor from Jacksonville to Pensacola. The coalition is focusing on 23 counties: 10 in the north and 13 others downstate, including Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Orange.

“Florida is a one-percent state. Elections are won and lost on the margins,” Jerez said, referring to GOP U.S. Sen. Rick Scott’s 0.2% win over then-incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson two years ago as one example.

Their plan can be found at the Ballot Access Florida website.

The Coalition cites a study by Daniel Smith, chairman of the University of Florida's political science department, for their last-minute push to make sure all ballots cast are counted.

Smith found that in 2012 and 2016 ballots from people of color were rejected at twice the rate of those from white voters. This year, as of Oct. 22, Smith found supervisors of elections had flagged more than 15,000 mail-in ballots with problems that needed to be resolved before they were counted.

That's an initial rejection rate of 0.3% of the 3.9 million ballots cast at that point, while both Blacks and Hispanics had rejection rates of 0.8%.

Of those, 267 ballots were from Leon County, according to Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley. His staff spent last week “curing” — election-speak for resolving questions about mail-in ballots — the ballots they had set aside.

“As of Tuesday, 133 voters had already successfully cured the problem,” Earley said.

Thursday, Jerez said at least 50 of the ballots at risk of being rejected were from Black and brown voters, or about 40% of the total, while the two groups make up about 31% of the county’s registered voters.

Nearly a quarter of those Black voters live along the I-10 corridor, and the Coalition is active in the region's more populated counties, including those where Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Panama City and Pensacola are located.

In the targeted counties, the four progressive organizations that make up the Coalition has identified more than 200,000 Black and brown "disaffected voters," that is, they have voted in just one of the last four presidential elections.

Jerez reads recent voter behavior data as points on a map. Given the state's history of close elections, he said, the road to victory in 2020 could very well run straight through Tallahassee.

He said the 32,000 Black and Hispanic voters in the capital who are eligible to vote but have done so only once since 2004 could very well decide the presidency.

They also could hold the fate of several proposed constitutional amendments, including one to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour: “We have digital ads to directly target these disaffected voters. We’re texting them. Calling them. Telling them, ‘You vote, you will decide who wins.' "

Equal Ground Education Fund, the Hispanic Federation of Florida, Poder LatinX, and Black Votes Matter came together in August to create the Black and Brown Access Campaign.

It has more than $100,000 for a final drive to increase voter participation in Leon, Alachua, Bay, Duval, Escambia, Gadsden, Jefferson, Jackson, Okaloosa, and Madison, and then to follow up to make sure those ballots are counted.

Jerez said the effort is nonpartisan. “Our only endorsement is, go vote. We don’t care for who, just vote,” he said. But the voters targeted tilt toward Democratic candidates, according to exit polls from 2018 and 2016.

And heading into the final weekend, the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden remains a toss-up.

A string of polls show Biden ahead, but the lead remains within the margins of error. Four years ago, heading into the final weekend, Hillary Clinton led Trump by 1.2%, but Trump carried the state by the same margin.

Jerez wouldn’t share how the Coalition uses publicly available data to identify how it knows a ballot at risk of being rejected is from a person of color. Florida law gives voters until Nov. 5, two days after Election Day, to fix any problems with their mail-in ballots.

Of the coming weekend and the post-Election Day count, Jerez said, “It’s going to be quite a ramp up in the next few days to make sure every single ballot is counted.”

According to the AP, as of Friday morning about 1.9 million mail-in ballots had yet to be turned in by Florida voters.

Earley and Jerez have both turned from encouraging voters to mail those ballots in to advising them to either vote in person or place the mail-in ballot in a drop box.

“We are beyond the recommended time to mail them back to the office,” Earley said. “My advice is to vote the mail ballot and put it in a drop box at an early voting site or overnight it using a non-USPS carrier to the Leon County Elections Office.”


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