Local minority community leaders: 'Democracy is on the ballot'
PANAMA CITY — Political discussions at home were customary growing up for local educator J. Dia Green-Jones.
"I grew up in a family where values were placed on hard work, education and helping others. Discussions about rights and votes and community always took place," she said. "I can remember my grandparents going to vote."
The area native expanded her civic understanding by attending historically Black university, Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, where she earned a doctoral degree in educational leadership. It was also there that she became adept in the inseparable impact of Black people in American and world history.
In her view, this election is "a turning point in the morality" of the United States of America. In an interview Thursday, Green-Jones held that minority communities have a duty to vote.
"More than anything, we must keep democracy alive. People must remain involved, engaged and in control of their communities," she said. "Voting is just one area and one place to start."
Bay County has 125,000 registered voters to make that start. As of Thursday, 52% — or 66,000 — of those voters had already cast their ballots, a leap from the 2016 general election in which 44,000 Bay voters voted early or by mail by the end of the voting cycle, according to the Department of State website.
The 2020 county-wide turnout mirrors the state, which reported Thursday that 52% of its 14 million voters had participated in early voting.
"It's heavier by a considerable amount," said Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen, comparing past mail-in and early voting responses from previous general elections.
Alongside consequential amendments such as the Amendment 2 minimum wage increase and Amendment 4 requiring Constitutional amendments to be passed twice, the momentum behind the worldwide Black Lives Matter campaign aimed at exposing social injustices and calling for sweeping law enforcement reforms is also on the ballot, according to community leaders.
And, minority voters are responding. As of Friday morning, 12,300 non-white Bay voters had submitted their ballots via mail or at one of the county's 14 super sites, according to the SOE Office. The numbers are pulling-in greater than previous elections.
The 2004 landslide election of former President Barack Obama was historical; but the 2020 election will be "crucial," said Rev. Dr. Rufus Woods, president of the Bay County chapter of the NAACP.
"We're dealing with a global pandemic," Woods said. "The racial tension — how many times have we witnessed that, how many times are we going to witness it. People of all races are rising up all across the country, they're fed up with it."
"We say every four years 'this is the most important election,' and this time, I think it really is," he said. "Democracy is on the ballot. And, in my view, even that is at risk."
The Bay County Civic Engagement Coalition, a group of organizations and community leaders formed in 2014, has planned three events this weekend and on Election Day to push people to the polls.
From 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and 9th Court, Halloween at the Polls/Trunk-or-Treat will be held. It'll include a competition for best costume and decorated trunk. On Sunday, from 12 to 4 p.m., the coalition will hold Souls to the Polls, a long-standing tradition on election years which churches caravan their members to polling sites.
On Election Day, Party to the Polls will be held 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Glenwood Community Center, 722 E. Ninth Court. About 1,800 voters have cast their ballots at the the community center, according to a voters turnout report at BayVotes.org on Friday.
It is imperative to note that any Bay voter can vote at any of the super sites.
Equal Ground Education Fund Founder Jasmine Burney-Clark, who partnered with local organizations for the weekend voting events, considers "the rural parts of northern Florida" to be "key counties."
"It has been ravished by hurricanes ... and our partnership comes with dollars — grant funding — to invest in supplies needed to host the event" and other items that may be needed to support the local people," she said. "We wanted to make sure we didn't lose the essence of the opportunity to gather folks to vote during this election cycle."
Northwest Florida Minority Business Chamber of Commerce Tony Bostick took a group of voters and young children to the Glenwood Community Center as a family effort during the Souls to the Polls event held last Sunday. Bostick is the father of The News Herald reporter, Jacqueline Bostick.
Citing the renewed conversation of court-packing with the recent nomination and swearing-in of Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Bostick pointed to the generational impacts of voting for the best presidential candidate. He called Election Day a "critical moment that will last for generations."
"We have to vote for our own best interest. We have to vote up and down the ballot," Bostick said. "This election is even more important than when President Barack Obama was elected. We have to ask ourselves where will we be in the next four years if (President Donald Trump) is re-elected."
With the support of Panama City and social based Minority PC, NWFL Minority Business Chamber will hold a Halloween-themed Afro Market from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and a trick-or-treat event from 5 to 6 p.m. at the former site of the African-American Cultural Center, 1412 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The community leaders said participating in making the choice of who leads the country is a nonpartisan act, yet a right and responsibility for all Americans.
"We're just at a critical point and we need some changes in this country," Woods said. "If you don't vote, you shouldn't complain. We can make a difference in Bay County, in the state of Florida, and on the federal level as well."
An Oct. 28 Facebook photo of Green-Jones hints at a smile behind a black mask with blue all-capped letters reading "Vote." The hashtags in the caption signaled the promise of a united front: #MyVoteMatters #YourVoteMatters.
"It doesn't matter who people vote for, what they vote for, just get out and vote," she said.
On Monday, while the rest of the state will have closed early voting sites, Bay and Gulf counties will remain open, adding seven additional sites to the 14 that are currently open.
"We're moving in the right direction, but we've slowed off a little bit," Andersen said, referring to the number of ballots submitted at the tail-end of the week. "The message we want to send is that we're open, we're not closing."
The last day to request a mail-in ballot has already passed. Voters should cast their ballots at super voting sites through Election Day on Tuesday. Find a site near you at bayvotes.org.