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  1. Opinion

Black youth can decide Florida’s elections | Column

College-age voters in Florida hold immense power. They should wield it, writes an official with the Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project

In 2016, President Donald J. Trump won our state by 112,911 votes. Compare that number to the 801,023 students enrolled in Florida’s colleges and universities. While all those students may not be eligible to vote, the vast majority can cast their ballot this November and truly make a difference in who wins and who loses.

It’s not lost on anyone that Florida is at the top of the list of important states for both the Trump and Biden campaigns. This year, it also cannot be lost on any college-age voter in Florida that their votes hold immense power.

Chadwick Leonard [ Provided ]

Unfortunately, too many elected officials are afraid of the power young voters hold and have done their best to either disenfranchise or discourage us from voting. This is especially true for college-age Black voters, including students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

I work with students at our state’s HBCUs, helping them make their voting plans and providing them with information about the process, so they can make informed choices in November. And I often see the effects of not only disenfranchisement, but also the refusal of many candidates to engage with students, particularly at HBCUs.

Despite the long tradition of students at HBCUs leading political movements — Vice Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris is notably an alum of Howard University — in 2016, there was a huge decline of student voter participation. Particularly, there was a 5.3 percent decrease in total Black student voting compared to the 2012 General Election and at HBCUs the decrease was 10.6 percent. There was a turnaround of this trend with student voting rates more than doubling in 2018 over 2014. In a swing state like Florida, where elections can be decided by only a few thousand votes, which trend we see this election really matters.

And let’s be clear, the importance of youth voter engagement goes beyond the top of the ticket. Far too often, elected officials dodge college students like they’re facing down a high-and-tight fastball. They refuse requests from students to join forums on important issues like the student loan crisis, economic inequality and police reform.

Then days before the election, the same candidates show up on campus hoping to take selfies with the very students to whom they wouldn’t give the time of day, only weeks before. Young voters I work with understand this opportunistic behavior, and instead want meaningful engagement to earn their vote. Finally, some candidates are demonstrating their commitment to young voters beyond simply calling us “the future.”

At HBCUs, cynicism about voting is further aggravated by those working to suppress the Black vote. HBCU students regularly face arbitrary fights with local or state officials to open polling places on campus. Recently, local officials in one Texas college community actually said a campus shouldn’t get a polling place despite student organizers' campaign for one because the election was the same week as the school’s homecoming so Black students wouldn’t care about voting.

In 2016, the Trump campaign reportedly ran a program to deter 3.5 million Black people from voting. It wasn’t even a secret. They named it “Deterrence.” We know this year has been no different with so much misinformation and disinformation on candidates and on how to vote. And there is already a push to cast doubt on the election’s results in an effort to discourage voting. Because the truth is our votes are protected and will be counted, and our vote is our voice and power. The misinformation efforts are fierce because they know if they can dissuade us of the impact we can have, we will stay home.

This year, it’s time to prove them wrong.

By voting in record numbers, young people will determine the election outcomes. That scares some lawmakers, but if enough of us use our voice through our vote, they won’t be able to ignore us. We can organize to use our power to make sure young people are more than just a talking point.

Chadwick Leonard is Florida state coordinator of the Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project and manager of the organizations HBCU Legacy Initiative. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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