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Are some voters feeling disenfranchised before the primaries? One political analyst says wait and see

tara newsom
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St. Petersburg College professor Tara Newsom

Thanks to increasingly partisan redistricting in Florida and a closed voting system, the August primary is most likely going to decide several races in the greater Tampa Bay area. The general election in November features some candidates with little or no previous political experience.

So are some voters feeling left out of the democratic process? WUSF's Steve Newborn talks about this with Tara Newsom, a political science professor at St. Petersburg College.

Is there any kind of a malaise that we're seeing in the electorate?  That some people feel like their voices aren't being heard? They're being drowned out by the more strident voices on the left and the right?

NEWSOM: I think Floridians are very much engaged. But they have a quiet resolve this election. And I think they got fatigued from the last five years. But you got to remember that Floridians are pretty smart. They know that in the last gubernatorial election in 2018, that DeSantis only won by .4%, he was the lowest performing gubernatorial candidate across the country. So I think we need to be really careful to not interpret our independent voters as being not engaged. I think they just have a quiet resolve that their voice will come out and be most powerful in November.

"We really won't know the report card on how Florida voters until November, and I believe in them. I believe that they understand what Justice Brandeis, our famous Supreme Court Justice said, There's no greater political office than a citizen. And I believe that although we’re trending red, we're purple to the heart. And we might see our Florida neighbors come out and vote for reasonable politics in the state of Florida."
-St. Petersburg College political science professor Tara Newsom

Just the fact that there are at least seven races in the Tampa Bay area that will be decided in the primaries in the middle of summer at the end of August when a lot of people are out of town or on vacation, that maybe this could lead to a feeling of disenfranchisement?

NEWSOM: I think America and Florida is feeling that sting of the partisanshipness of having a governor and a legislature in lockstep. So I'm not so sure that your analysis isn't incorrect. But I would broaden it a little bit. Yes, maybe we don't have an enormous amount of selections in our primaries, because of gerrymandering. And also, because I think the sting of running for public office right now, it comes with a price that a lot of reasonable citizens don't necessarily want to pay. So I think you're seeing radicalized choices and individuals being gun shy to participate. You're seeing the product of the gerrymandering and the type of redistricting that we don't see in any of the other 50 states.

But I think that we can't judge Florida's voters by the primary. It could be that Florida takes a page from the Kansas voters, who also had a closed primary. They also are a red state, but they voted by 60-40 in favor of more fundamental freedoms for women. And we have similar types of legislation in the state of Florida.

So I think number one, we have to just wait and see if our voters are going to be motivated, not necessarily by the candidates, but by the issues. And so I think you're right, hey, maybe we wish we had a more robust playing field for our primary. But I think we have to wait and see what happens. But remember, midterm elections don't always just tell us what's going to happen. You know that, your listeners know that. We really won't know the report card on how Florida voters until November, and I believe in them. I believe that they understand what Justice Brandeis, our famous Supreme Court Justice said, There's no greater political office than a citizen. And I believe that although we’re trending red, we're purple to the heart. And we might see our Florida neighbors come out and vote for reasonable politics in the state of Florida.

"And you know, many people argue that the executive branch and the legislative branch in the state of Florida in lockstep, went too far. And the sort of grassroots movement that I'm seeing across my community in Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg, and of course, on college campuses, is not this far-reaching liberal agenda that we hear about, it's more reasonable, thoughtful understanding of what the Constitution and our principles afforded us, which is liberty, equality, access to voting, access to education."
-Tara Newsom

Conventional wisdom has a lot of the Democrats on fire because of the recent abortion decisions both in the Supreme Court and in Tallahassee limiting abortions here in the state. How much of a factor do you really believe that is going to motivate Democratic voters to get out there that ordinarily wouldn't vote?

NEWSOM: I think that we cannot underestimate that democracy is not built on laws, but on principles. And when those principles are offended, and the principles of liberty, of freedom of sovereignty of body, those are extremely important to everyone in the state of Florida. And I think you're going to see a galvanized front of maybe those that haven't necessarily aligned with the Democratic Party, they may align with the no-party affiliate or independents, but they will come out in force in November, because these are fundamental freedoms.

And you know, many people argue that the executive branch and the legislative branch in the state of Florida in lockstep, went too far. And the sort of grassroots movement that I'm seeing across my community in Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg, and of course, on college campuses, is not this far-reaching liberal agenda that we hear about, it's more reasonable, thoughtful understanding of what the Constitution and our principles afforded us, which is liberty, equality, access to voting, access to education. And I think those are the kinds of things that drive the principal parts of us no matter where we lie on the political spectrum. And I think those people are going to come out and vote in November.

A lot of the vitriol we hear from a lot of the candidates on both sides of the spectrum are really extreme. And they appeal to their bases, which is probably what you're going to expect in the primaries when you're only appealing to Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. Do you think this turns off the great middle, where people get turned off by this kind of behavior?

NEWSOM: There's a reason why one-third of the voting electorate in Florida across all the Tampa Bay is independent. And that is a fast-growing number. And that's because the information diet that we're afforded from the right and the left is disorientating, and most of us know that it's not exactly accurate. And so I think that hubris that you're talking about, yeah, turns us off. But what turns us off more is having our liberties taken from us.

And so I think, yeah, I appeal to the greater good because I believe in Floridians, and I believe that they're going to come out and vote, because they want what all of us want, which is access to democracy, access to education, access to clean environment, access to safe environment, safe communities. That's what we all want. And yeah, we all get turned off by the hubris. But we get turned on more by the fact that we might not have it if we don't fight for it.

"The information diet that we're afforded from the right and the left is disorientating, and most of us know that it's not exactly accurate. And so I think that hubris that you're talking about, yeah, turns us off. But what turns us off more is having our liberties taken from us."
-Tara Newsom

What have you been hearing out there from the people you've been talking to? What are the issues that seem to matter the most?

NEWSOM: I think that inflation is certainly hit every single person in America, including me, and including you, I'm sure everyone that listens to you can't ignore that you go to the grocery store, and you go to the gas tank, and you also get your paycheck and the math doesn't work out.

But I can't underscore enough affordable housing. Because I work at St. Petersburg College, we are an open access college, we invite everyone to come and get an education wherever they are. And one of the biggest issues that our students are facing is how do I not only go to work, go to school, and be able to afford to live in St. Pete. And Tampa Bay as a greater area has the same problems in Tampa, as it does in St. Petersburg, as it does in Sarasota. So affordable housing continues to be an issue.

And the other issue that I think that is continuing is freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and freedom of participating in democracy. I think a lot of students and a lot of community grassroots members that are just individuals that show up to different activities, feel the heaviness in our state. And that heaviness is the heaviness of are we as free as we could be? And are we living through time in which many of our individual freedoms and at least the perception of those freedoms are being stymied. And that's really what I'm hearing.

You know, when people are trying to seek to survive, they're looking for affordable housing, they're looking for affordable food, they're looking to be able to go to school, those are focuses. But when you take care of those items, the issue that I constantly hear about when those are taken care of like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, is the environment and the extreme heat. And the fear of what's going to happen when we don't take care of our own world becomes more at the apex of people's issues. But people right now are dealing with housing and food and how do I make it from day to day. But when you take care of those issues, the environment remains at the top of people's lives.

The question is, are those issues going to be enough to get people to the polls this August and in November?

NEWSOM: I think that they will, because I think when you really take a look at it, that many people in Florida will look at our executive branch or our legislative branch and say, have you taken care of the dinner table issues? Have you taken care of the kinds of issues that I have access to a living wage? Do I have access to affordable energy? Do I have access to food and an education for my kids, and it's going to become clear to Floridians when they start making that analysis after the primary. You know, it's okay to sort of be sleepy through that. But I think that Floridians are going to come out and they're going to come out strong in November.

The goal of our democracy team at WUSF News is to provide you with accurate, honest journalism to empower and inform you about voting and elections.

Our journalists are independent, curious, respectful, and accountable to you. We’re committed to keeping you at the center of this conversation on democracy, staying in touch through surveys, social media, and in-person events. We won’t be chasing politicians, but instead we’ll tell stories based on the questions you want answered.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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