Brandi Jean-Baptiste, SGA President, center, with her cabinet at the early voting site at Schell-Sweet Community Resource Center on the campus of Edward Waters College on Oct. 22, 2018.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr

Jacksonville, Fla.—Kamiyah Robinson didn’t have to leave the campus of the oldest HBCU in Florida, Edwards Waters College, to vote for the first time.

The college has been an voting site for more than 18 years. But 2018 is the first time residents can cast ballots during early voting on campus. Voting was delayed momentarily at the Schell-Sweet Community Resource Center because of technical issues with a voting machine but got underway after the issue was fixed. Traffic was slow at first; students began making their way to the center over the course of the afternoon.

“It just gives me the opportunity to actually be heard and to take advantage of voting for a change,” 19-year-old Robinson said.

Before she voted for Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race, she and other students marked the historic event by marching to the Schell-Sweet center. The college was designated an early voting site two months ago, according to college officials.

Advertisement

Getting students involved in the electoral process has always been central to the college’s mission of civic engagement, said Marie Health, director of the Schell-Sweet center.

“We like to have positive engagement in our civic and public affairs and to incorporate the community in a way that we can enhance their education, as well as their community development, and voting is a way we can enhance that,” said Health, who is also the assistant to the associate provost for community affairs.

Early voting is also taking place at North Florida University, where former Vice President Joe Biden hosted a rally on behalf of Gillum, who is in a close race with former Republican congressman Ron DeSantis. Nearly one million Floridians have already cast mail-in ballots, according to the Sun-Sentinel. So far, as NBC affiliate WFLA-8 reports, Republicans are outpacing Democrats in mail-in voting. In Florida, GOP voters usually cast more mail-in ballots; Democrats tend to vote in-person in higher numbers.

Advertisement

Brandi Jean-Baptist, student government association president at Edward Waters, said she and other student leaders heavily utilized social media to help spread the word about early voting on campus: Facebook, Instagram Live, anyplace where students devote their attention.

“There’s a disconnect,” Jean-Baptist said. “Older people really have a better understanding or a care for voting because the majority of them were around an era [when they could not vote], so they have a better understanding of the need to express yourself through voting.”

Advertisement

For Gillum to become Florida’s next governor, he will need new voters who have felt ignored and disengaged. Tapping into young, first-time voters is essential.

Having candidates like Gillum—progressive, young, black—on the ballot makes Dwight Bullard’s job to get young people out to vote much easier. Bullard is political director for The New Florida Majority and was on campus to help with early voting efforts.

Had Gillum been the typical older white man who usually runs for governor, getting college-age voters to pay attention would have been much more difficult, Bullard said.

Advertisement

“I’ve been down that road before,” he said. “Look no further than 2016. Even in trying to convey the message back to the campaign: ‘Hey, you need to modernize it. You need to be a little more savvy. You need to use your social media platform better.’ Those suggestions were meet with hostility primarily because we were dealing with somebody who wasn’t as familiar with those things as Mayor Gillum is. He isn’t afraid to get on and do a Facebook Live and just be very candid about what he’s been going through, and that is unique in this day and time.”

Besides having a 39-year-old black man at the top of the ballot, there are a number of social justice issues down-ballot that give students an incentive to vote, such as Amendment 4, which restores the right to vote for people formerly convicted of most felonies. Voter disenfranchisement via felony conviction strips millions of Floridians from the right to vote. According to the Brennan Center, more than 1.5 million residents in the state have been disenfranchised because of felony convictions, the highest of any state in the union. Community groups have galvanized voter registration efforts around Amendment 4, given that one in five of the disenfranchised is black.

Also, the aftermath of the Parkland shootings saw a 41 percent voter registration increase among people between the ages of 18-29. David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, survivors of the shootings, have been traveling the country encouraging young people to vote so they can support gun reform. Progressive community groups and politicians have long called for sensible gun reform laws that can positively affect black communities that often experience the brunt of gun-related violence.

Advertisement

Having those issues on the ballot provides students like those attending Edward Waters College a direct way to shape the political discourse in their state and communities for years to come.

Freshman Zakarieya Collins took advantage of that opportunity by going to the Schell-Sweet center to cast a ballot for the first time in her young life.

“I think it’s pretty important because it gives me a sense of independence,” she said. “I grew up watching my mom go vote all of the time. Now that I get the opportunity to myself, it makes me feel like I am making a change in my own way.”