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Black voters redrawing Pasco elections picture

On Tuesday, James Ridley will head to the polls for the first time.

The 18-year-old from Land O'Lakes plans to vote for Sen. Barack Obama for president.

"Being African-American, I support Barack, but that's not the only reason," he said. "I've listened to his debates, and it's not what he says, but how he says it. The way he speaks is captivating."

Ridley is part of a surge of black Pasco voters participating in this year's election.

Over the past two weeks, about 20 percent of all Pasco voters have cast ballots through early voting.

Just among black voters, however, the turnout has been nearly 43 percent.

Blacks remain a small minority in Pasco, comprising just 3.8 percent of the population. But their ranks among registered voters are growing.

Since the last presidential election, the number of black voters in Pasco has increased 78 percent, from 5,422 to 9,650, while the total number of voters only went up 9 percent, from 269,642 to 294,677. In that time the local black population grew 66 percent.

Not only are more blacks registered to vote, but so far a much larger proportion of them are participating. Nearly 43 percent have voted early this year, compared with only 8 percent who voted early in 2004.

Black residents say their motivation this year is two-fold: They are inspired by a black candidate, and they believe Obama will bring change to the nation's economy.

Sandy Wright, 56, of Hudson, said she supports Obama's plans to help seniors on fixed incomes and improve the country's health care system. But she is also excited about what Obama's candidacy represents for black people like herself.

"We used to tell black kids, 'You can be all you can be,' " Wright said. "Now, through education, we can be anything. It's not just a figment of the imagination. This dream can come true."

Thousands of black Pasco residents are also heading to the polls to take advantage of early voting, which began Oct. 20 and ended Saturday.

"I am seeing a lot of younger African-American voters come out," said Brian Corley, county election's supervisor. "Whatever their motives are, I'm just glad they're participating in democracy."

One of those young voters is Sariana Rodriguez. The 18-year-old from Port Richey, who is black, voted early for Obama.

"I want a change, because this country is so messed up," she said. "I want something different."

But there are also voters like Derisa Tuttle, a black woman who is volunteering at the New Port Richey campaign office for Sen. John McCain.

In an Oct. 19 Pasco Times story, Tuttle touted McCain's experience and said "I think McCain is fighting for what I believe in."

It is unclear what the surge in black voters this year means for Pasco politics in the long term, said Bob Judson of Zephyrhills, retired president of Pasco-Hernando Community College.

"A lot of the excitement with the black community is because (Obama) is half black," he said. "I would hope that once they got involved in the process and saw that their vote can make a difference, then I think that very fact might encourage some to want to pay more attention to what's happening politically, from city offices on up."

Young black voters like Ridley say they recognize the historical significance of voting for blacks, regardless of who the candidate is.

"Our people had to fight to get to vote," Ridley said. "Why fight for it if you're not going to do it?"

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Camille C. Spencer can be reached at cspencer@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

By the numbers

5,422 — Number of registered black voters in Pasco in 2004.

9,650 — Number of registered black voters in Pasco this year.

434 — Number of black voters who voted early in the 2004 general election.

4,104 — Number of black voters who voted early in this year's election.

Source: Pasco County Supervisor of Election's office and the U.S. Census Bureau

Black voters redrawing Pasco elections picture 11/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 12:50pm]
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