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‘Souls To The Polls’ Events Hope To Mobilize Black Voters Across Florida

All attendees were required to have their temperature taken before being allowed to participate in the "Souls to the Polls" event Sunday in Gainesville. (Alyssa Feliciano/WUFT News)
All attendees were required to have their temperature taken before being allowed to participate in the "Souls to the Polls" event Sunday in Gainesville. (Alyssa Feliciano/WUFT News)

The socially distanced crowd cheered Sunday as Trávis King held a mask in his left hand and told his story before signing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on a stage in downtown Gainesville.

Saying he had recently recovered from a life threatening case of COVID-19, King was determined to help support the statewide “Souls to the Polls” early voting initiative.

“In this day and age, I think it’s so important that voices are being heard, especially with COVID, all the other issues that are going on,” King said after performing in front of 50 people in the SunTrust Bank parking lot on North Main Street.

Alachua is among 25 counties in which the Orlando-based Equal Ground Education Fund is mobilizing faith-based and community organizations to spur African Americans to cast their ballots before early voting in Florida ends Sunday.

The Rev. Karl Anderson, pastor of Upper Room Ministries in Gainesville, hosted the local event along with the Alachua County NAACP. Anderson said because this Election Day is proving to mean much more to so many more people, he hoped Souls to the Polls would help transform the theme of “PUSH the Vote” beyond “pray until something happens.”

“We’re taking a different twist this year: Pray until something happens. Praise until something happens. Party until something happens,” the pastor said.

He added: “But it won’t mean much if we don’t go out and vote.”

The education fund’s founder, Jasmine Burney-Clark, said it held four smaller versions of the early voting event before the primary election in August, to see how it would work amid the pandemic. Burney-Clark said she believes that African Americans are primed to vote in large numbers this year to help demand accountability from elected officials.

“They know that we’ve had a trying year as Black folks in our community,” she said.

Burney-Clark said her organization is planning similar events in Hillsborough, Broward, Volusia, Leon, Escambia and Seminole Counties, as well as a caravan to an early voting site in North Miami Dade this weekend.

In Ocala on Sunday, Black voters joined a caravan to the Marion County Supervisor of Elections Office, in an event sponsored by the NAACP, Faith in Florida and Florida Restoration of Rights Coalition. The Rev. Reginald Willis Sr., pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, said it was important to remind African Americans that their votes are important.

“In order to make the change that we want to see, we have to ensure that when the counts are being taken, we’re recognized,” Willis said.

Of the 190,000 people registered to vote in Alachua County, about 32,000 identify as Black, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, Black voters comprised 13% of the votes cast in Florida – and were 22% of early voters, according to research by Dartmouth College faculty member Michael Herron and University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith.

During Obama’s second run for president, Black people who had voted early on the last Sunday before the general election in 2008 were more unlikely to cast a ballot in 2012, according to another study by the same authors.

A recent investigation by the Miami Herald revealed that in 2016, the campaign to elect Donald Trump for president purposely deterred Black people from voting in Miami. According to the investigation, the Trump campaign placed advertisements with disinformation in order to make voters who may have voted for Hillary Clinton lose faith in her campaign.

In the parking lot in Gainesville, Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton told the crowd that 75,000 people in Alachua County have requested vote-by-mail ballots, well over the average of 30,000.

Christopher Reid, the family liaison at Joseph Williams Elementary School, came to the rally wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Vote for Our Freedom,” and a red hat with “Made Ya Look” and “Black Lives Matter” on it.

Reid attended the event with March For Our Freedom, a local organization founded after George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, died in May when a white police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for several minutes. Reid said he was not pushing anyone to cast a ballot for a specific candidate – he just wants people to vote.

“We have been given so many rights and opportunities,” he said. “Our forefathers fought for us to actually do this.”

With gospel music playing over the speakers, Sheila Baker sat in the shade sharing fruit with her 4-year-old granddaughter Jarriel Edwards. Baker said she wanted Jarriel to soak in the occasion in hopes that the girl would appreciate the need to vote when her turn comes.

“I brought her to this environment so she can become a mentor to the children her age now and in the future,” Baker said.

Read more of WUFT’s coverage of Florida Votes 2020

Alyssa is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.