What you need to know about voting in Alachua County’s upcoming primary election

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In Florida’s closed primary election Aug. 23, there is something on the ballot for everyone.

The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office is emphasizing this message as it prepares for an important election amid this summer’s turbulent political climate.

Primary elections traditionally have low voter turnout, especially in midterm election years. But the August primary offers voters a critical opportunity to weigh in on issues that matter most to them. When you cast your ballot to determine who will run in the general election, you may be more satisfied with the candidates on Election Day in November, said Aaron Klein, director of communications and outreach for the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office.

“If voters want to be able to fully participate in November, they’re going to have to ensure that they participate in August, as well, to determine those nominees and determine what the ballot looks like in November,” he said.

For the first time, Gainesville residents can also vote for candidates at the municipal level in Alachua County’s August primaries.

Here is everything you need to know ahead of the election.

How can you vote?

The voter registration and party affiliation change deadline for the primary is July 25.

Notably, anyone who does not have their last four Social Security number digits or Florida driver’s license/Florida ID number on file will not be able to make a vote-by-mail request online nor over the phone. This primarily affects voters who registered nearly two decades ago. You can update your voter registration information here, or you can mail in a voter registration application.

Voting by mail

You do not have to head to the polls Aug. 23 to make your voice heard; you can vote at your convenience by requesting a vote-by-mail ballot. All currently qualified registered voters in Alachua County can vote by mail.

If you want a ballot delivered to your address, you must request it by 5 p.m. Aug. 13. Ballots are typically mailed within two business days after the request.

Your ballot must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day for your vote to count.

You can request a vote-by-mail ballot one of five ways:

  • Telephone: Call (352) 374-5252 between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.
  • Website
  • In-person: Requests can be made at the Supervisor of Elections office at 515 N. Main St. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.
  • Mail: With this form, requests should be sent to: Supervisor of Elections, 515 N. Main St., Suite 300, Gainesville, FL 32601.
  • Fax: Requests should be faxed to (352) 374-5264.

Requests must include your name, address, date of birth, signature (for mail and fax requests), and the last four digits of your Social Security number or full Florida driver’s license/Florida ID number.

Additionally, if your signature has changed over time, be aware that the signature on the envelope containing your vote-by-mail ballot will be compared to your signature on file. Complete the online registration form to update your signature; the signature on your driver’s license will become the one of record.

Vote by mail legitimacy has faced criticism recently, but Klein said vote by mail is secure and accessible. The county works hard to ensure the standards of security for mail-in ballots are consistent; the ballots are stored securely when they are received.

“We have resources, such as ballot tracks, which is a secure communication system where folks can opt in to receive information about the status of their vote-by-mail ballot to get updates and reminders,” he added. “They can also utilize our website, votealachua.gov, and check in to see the status of their vote-by-mail ballot.”

Voting early

 The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections website lists numerous designated early voting sites, which are open Aug. 13 to Aug. 20 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

  • Supervisor of Elections Office: 515 N. Main St., Gainesville, FL 32601
  • Millhopper Branch Library: 3145 NW 43rd St., Gainesville, FL 32606
  • Tower Road Branch Library: 3020 SW 75th St., Gainesville, FL 32608
  • Orange Heights Baptist Church:16700 FL-26, Hawthorne, FL 32640
  • Legacy Park Multipurpose Center: 15400 Peggy Road, Alachua, FL 32615
  • Wayne Reitz Union: 655 Reitz Union Drive, UF Campus, Gainesville, FL 32611
  • Alachua County Agriculture and Equestrian Center: 23100 W Newberry Road, Newberry, FL 32669

Voting on Election Day

On Aug. 23, polling places are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but Alachua County voters must cast their ballot in the polling location to which they are assigned. With new redistricting and reprecincting, some voters’ districts and polling places changed. Review your new voter information card carefully or use the precinct finder to identify your polling place.

With the recent spike in Alachua County COVID-19 cases, the Supervisor of Elections office is ensuring polling places are hygienic and encouraging election workers to report any symptoms ahead of time. Signage will recommend concerned voters wear facial coverings and take social distancing precautions.

Redistricting

There will be representational impacts at both the congressional and state levels due to GOP-controlled gerrymandering, UF political science professor Daniel Smith, who specializes in political participation, said; the state’s redistricting of the state Senate, state House and federal congressional district maps has “without question” diminished the ability of certain demographics to elect a candidate of their choice.

In Gainesville, specifically, the city has been split by the state Senate map.

“You’ve taken this blue island in North Central Florida and have split it in two, so that both districts are much more likely to elect a Republican,” he said.

The same trend can be found in the new map dividing districts for the state House, too.

“They packed as many Democrats, white and Black alike, into the eastside district that Rep. Hinson represents and have effectively bleached out the remaining districts to make them more likely to elect Republican state House members,” he explained.

So, despite Democrats’ two-to-one advantage in terms of registered Gainesville voters, their votes have been split by gerrymandering. This will affect the representation of Alachua County and Gainesville residents, diminishing the power of a Democratic vote, Smith said.

Expected trends in local races

Races for the Gainesville City Commission and mayor will be listed for the first time on the ballot in the primaries; in the past, off-cycle contests were typically held in March and turnout fell between 10% and 20%, Smith estimated. These spring elections often held during UF students’ spring break, too.

Low turnout spurred the city commission to move municipal elections to the lengthy August ballot. This could pose two problems, though, Smith detailed. While Gainesville will see an increased turnout for the primaries compared to past city elections, drastic roll-off will occur: Many residents will vote for candidates running for higher office but not those running for local offices, especially in nonpartisan municipal races where a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ is not listed beside a candidate’s name.

Additionally, races at the statewide level have flooded voters’ attention span, so local candidates — particularly those running for mayor and city commission — have more difficulty spreading their messages, Smith said.

“It creates a much noisier environment, and the signal of a campaign message becomes blurred,” he added. “I think that harms the ability of being able to focus on those local issues.”

This may affect how informed residents are on local issues, like housing — the one topic currently dominating city politics, Smith said.

As the city strategizes how to spearhead affordable housing, mayoral candidates spar about zoning. In neighborhoods where exclusionary zoning is not enacted, more homes can be built on a lot, allowing for duplexes, triplexes and even quadruplexes.

Commissioners David Arreola and Harvey Ward, who both lean left politically, have staked out opposing positions regarding inclusionary zoning; Arreola claims the change is necessary to lower the price of apartments and housing, more generally, in Gainesville, while Ward opposes the change, as it may decrease property values as neighborhoods’ character transforms.

Gary Gordon, a former city commissioner and mayor-commissioner in the ’80s, is also a left-leaning candidate who seeks to control big developers and preserve neighborhoods.

On the other hand, Ed Bielarski, the former general manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities, has commanded a position opposing the left-leaning city commission, attracting the attention of conservative voters in Gainesville, Smith said.

“There’s a possibility of Democrats splitting their vote along not only Arreola and Ward, but also Gary Gordon,” he said. “And Bielarski could get 50% [of the vote] or more in the first round.”

If no candidate receives a majority, two mayoral contenders will face off again in November’s general election.

County and city elections like the mayoral race may be the primary reason many conservatives vote in the primaries; Smith said Republicans do not have much incentive to vote because there are not many competitive statewide races, but they will likely turn out in droves anyway.

Democratic candidates have more at stake with respect to generating turnout, he clarified. The gubernatorial race, specifically, is competitive among Democrats.

It is unclear whether controversial issues like gun reform and abortion rights will spur voter activity in the primaries because municipal governments cannot overturn statewide mandates, Smith said; it will be difficult to gauge the excitement and energy resulting from critical recent Supreme Court decisions.

He noted partisan politics is at the center of many local races that are technically nonpartisan, which becomes tricky for voters who may not be familiar with the candidates. On the ballot, partisan school board candidates, for instance, will not have a party label next to their name.

Mildred Russell, Daniel Fisher, Ray Holt and Kay Abbitt are conservative candidates running in the Alachua County School Board race, Smith said. In this contentious election, Republicans are working in concert to challenge what has been a “more liberal-leaning, Democratic school board,” he added. They are running a coordinated campaign with the help of funding from statewide and nationwide conservative donors — much of the money is not homegrown.

“We have a concerted effort across the country of conservative groups to try to take over school boards at the county level,” Smith said.

Make a plan to vote

 Elections have consequences, especially at the city and county level. The biggest piece of advice the Supervisor of Elections office can offer voters is to make a simple plan for how to participate in the August primaries. They fall in the middle of hurricane season, and it is a time when Alachua County residents must adjust to the influx of students in Gainesville in the fall. So, asking questions like how and when you will vote ahead of time ensures you are fully informed and simplifies the voting process.

“Our goal is to ensure that voting is accessible and easy, and voters can certainly do a big part in making that happen by making a plan early,” Klein said.

About Carissa Allen

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

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