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Black Florida senator leads vote-by-mail campaign ahead of midterm elections

Sen. Shevrin Jones has rolled out Operation BlackOut, a statewide effort to enroll Black voters into voting by mail in Florida.
Rep. Shevrin Jones asks a question at a legislative session in Tallahassee, Fla., in March 2019.
Rep. Shevrin Jones asks a question at a legislative session in Tallahassee, Fla., in March 2019.Steve Cannon / AP file

A Florida legislator has launched a campaign across the state to get more Black and Afro-Latino people to vote by mail to circumvent new laws that can disproportionately restrict voters of color. 

The initiative, led by Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones said the goal of Operation BlackOut is to enroll 40,000 “nontraditional” voters of color in voting by mail this year. The effort comes after the enactment last year of Senate Bill 90, a law that restricts voting by mail, and months ahead of midterm elections in November. 

Operation BlackOut targets voters of color in rural areas and nontraditional voters, meaning people who do not vote or are less likely to vote in midterm elections. He said it is an effort to keep voters engaged in the electoral process outside of presidential elections.  

“So often in these cycles, we are only talking to Black people when it’s time to vote,” Jones said. “It’s disingenuous, it’s old, and it is not becoming of people who are trying to build sustainable permanent collective power.” 

Black and Latino populations were more likely than white voters to cast early ballots in the November 2020 election, through the mail, by absentee ballot or by voting in person, according to data from the Pew Research Center. The report found that 38 percent of Black people voted by mail, compared to 62 percent who voted in person. Yet, voting by mail is still a popular option in Florida; it jumped from 30 percent of the vote in 2016 to 46 percent in 2020 in the presidential primaries, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

While voting by mail is still less popular among Black voters, experts say programs like Operation BlackOut provide education and resolve issues that keep Black communities away from the polls, such as a lack of time. 

“Trying to expand and bring more people into the vote-by-mail process is directly going at one of the root causes that so many people say that they don’t vote, especially working Americans,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster and MSNBC analyst. “They don’t have time to go wait in a line for an hour, two hours, to vote, because their life doesn’t afford them that.” 

The benefits of voting by mail 

Sharon Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said voting by mail is one of a variety of tactics to increase Black voter turnout in the midterm elections. Operation BlackOut plans to engage voters through churches, community events and door-to-door organizing, all in hope that they sign up to vote by mail through its online portal

“I think it is part of a larger project to make sure that people of color, especially African Americans and Latinos, vote during midterm elections,” Austin said. “Over the years, they have voted in presidential elections, but usually their turnout decreases dramatically during midterms.”

An NBC News analysis of 2019 census voting-age data reveals that 40,000 voters would make up about 1.2 percent of the nearly 3.4 million nonwhite voters in Florida. 

Austin said voting by mail offers several benefits for Black and Latino populations who are more likely to experience problems at their polling sites, including long lines and equipment issues. 

“They have problems in the sense that the equipment is older, there are breakdowns, especially during presidential elections, there are long lines,” Austin said. “You can avoid all of those problems if you vote by mail.” 

Jones added that many Black voters do not believe their votes will change the status quo. 

“There are hundreds of thousands of Black and brown voters who haven’t voted since Obama — and it’s not because they are apathetic. It’s because they haven’t been asked and they don’t feel heard,” Jones said. “Operation BlackOut is going directly to those voters — the ones that are ignored by campaigns because they don’t have a high turnout score — and we’re going to tell them they are important, we’re going to listen while reminding them their voice is important, and we’re going to enroll them to vote by mail and make sure they vote.” 

Austin said many of the recent pushes to mobilize voters on the ground to vote early and vote by mail follow tactics used during Barack Obama’s historic 2008 presidential campaign. The Obama campaign emphasized early voting to encourage voters of color to cast their ballots before Election Day, either in person or through the mail. 

The efforts contributed to the campaign’s success. 

“It really made a difference in Florida, because President Obama won in both 2008 and 2012, but not by really large margins,” she said. “He was really able to get his base to vote, and it made a difference in a close election. ... And I think that politicians now are aware of that.”

During the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump used a similar strategy to secure votes in the state. 

“The same could be said for President Trump when he won Florida. ... He didn’t win by a large margin when he defeated Hillary Clinton,” Austin said. “I think that even he learned from President Obama’s strategy is that you really have to get your base registered, but it’s more important to actually get them to cast a vote.” 

If the campaign succeeds in increasing turnout in Black communities, Austin said, it could lead to more African American representation in the Legislature. She said that could also restore confidence among voters of color in Florida, who have long felt disenfranchised at the polls.

SB 90, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in May, requires residents to show state ID numbers and Social Security numbers to obtain mail-in ballots without providing other options. But, Austin said, a potential uptick in Black voters might change that in the long run. 

“They can vote the kind of people in the Legislature who have views that are similar to their own, and they can vote for people who are not in favor of voting for legislation like SB 90,” she said. 

The potential success might also spark backlash, she said.  

“If you see a record turnout, especially in vote-by-mail ballots by Black and brown voters, you’re probably going to see a negative reaction from the Legislature, in the sense that they’re going to propose legislation that’s similar to SB 90 or even worse to make it harder for people to vote by mail,” she said.

As Operation BlackOut kicks off this month, Jones said he hopes that in the long run, the organization can help build a statewide infrastructure that will be modeled in other states. He said it also amplifies a much larger message in politics. 

“Don’t write Florida off,”  he said. “We are building an infrastructure for the long term … putting hope back in the process, engaging people back in process, so that it can be sustainable for years to come.” 

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CORRECTION (Feb. 17, 2022, 3:15 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated that Shevrin Jones is Florida's only Black state senator. He is its only Black LGBTQ state senator.