Alachua County candidates shift campaign strategies due to COVID-19

It’s not easy running for elected office. 

Unless you have a staff of full-time political operatives, a war chest loaded with cash, a team of volunteers, and name recognition equal to a sitting president or a former vice president, you have your work cut out for you. 

In just a few months, candidates in Alachua County races need to manage their limited time, work with a small budget, get petitions signed, knock on thousands of doors, design a website, create social media presence, all in the hope that their message reaches the electorate, and connects with them enough to inspire their support on election day. 

It’s a difficult prospect under the best of conditions, and as you know, these are not the best of conditions.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way Alachua County residents do everything – or stopped them from doing it at all. And while there are essential jobs and businesses that remain working or open, politics and campaigns are obviously not among them. 

 But while campaigns are essentially frozen in place, the election clock keeps ticking. The August 18th primary and November 3rd general elections continue to get closer, yet candidates are unable to campaign in the traditional ways that move their efforts forward.

There are 22 candidates in Alachua County running for 11 offices. Mainstreet Daily News contacted all of them to find out how they were coping with the challenge of being on the ballot during a pandemic. We asked them several questions:

What are they doing to get their messages to voters? Are they doing virtual town halls? Are they communicating on social media? Are they mailing more campaign materials? Or are they just waiting for the coronavirus to run its course and start back with a traditional campaign? 

Five candidates responded with a diversity of strategies they are employing and challenges they are facing in this most unusual of campaign cycles.

Kelly Suggs

 “Normally by this time all of the candidates would have their required number of petitions signed and verified,” said Kelly Suggs, a candidate for Alachua County Property Appraiser. “Not long ago when we had a great many events happening we were being very successful meeting and greeting the voters. We were pleased with the positive response of the voters and very optimistic about having the petitions turned in before the deadline. Now we are trying our best to be safe and carry on a campaign at the same time. We have started calling those on our contact lists, sending out posts on Facebook and requesting our friends to do the same.”

Suggs was also grateful that e-signatures were being allowed to complete the petition process. The new emergency order signed by Secretary of State Laurel Lee on April 2nd allows for the electronic submission of qualifying documents, including signed petitions. The emergency rule stripped the requirement that a campaign must include a voter’s original ink signature to be counted on a petition. Now, according to the state, signed petitions can either be scanned and faxed to campaigns or uploaded to secure sites like DocuSign for transmittal.

 “The Governor’s flexing of the rules to allow the cards to be e-signed will help but it will not be easy,” Suggs said. “The voters, who are now at home keeping up with the pandemic, are now also being asked to do a bit more to be able to get candidates on the ballot. I hope when the voters receive a post from any of the candidates requesting help they take the time to exercise their right to put a candidate on the ballot and fill out, e-sign and then send the card back. It is important to the candidates and the voters that we keep the petition method of getting on the ballot a viable method.”

Wendy Sapp, also a candidate for property appraiser, is taking an “all of the above” approach to campaigning during COVID-19.

Wendy Sapp

“The pandemic basically stopped all candidates from engaging in person to person contact,” she said. “Depending on how long the stay at home (order) lasts, all of our campaigning will have to be done through other ways. I am using social media, emails, webinars, and advertising.” 

She is also awaiting answers from Tallahassee on a number of issues she raised.

“Some candidates will have to pay the qualifying fee to get on the ballot now since it has become very difficult to get petition forms signed by Alachua County voters. The deadline is May 10th for petition forms. I have emailed the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Division of Elections concerning the petition qualifying process and asking for some kind of proration on the qualifying fee. I am very concerned about the Primary election and the virus. I do have lots of questions and concerns about the whole process and I am patiently waiting for some guidance on moving forward.”  

Leanetta McNealy

Leanetta McNealy, a candidate for Seat #4 on the Alachua County School Board, has taken hold of the new normal, and is in the process of adjusting strategies to reach her base of supporters.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 immediately changed the campaign team’s direction for the pathway to winning the election,” she said. “During this period of campaigning, I have had to resort totally to social media, website, youtube, phone calls, and US mail. Our campaign meetings are all virtual. It is a very interesting time and so different from my past campaigning. I certainly have embraced this new way of campaigning and am enjoying connecting constituents through technology.”

Diyonne McGraw, running for Seat #2 on the Alachua County School Board, is dealing with the reality she might have to pay the filing fee instead of collecting enough petitions to be exempt.

Diyonne McGraw

“I am on the downside of collecting my petitions because the deadline is May 11, 2020 or I would have to pay the $1810.00 fee, so this is my focus this week.”

 McGraw continues to campaign through traditional methods, and found a way to enter potential voter’s homes despite the stay at home order. 

 “I have continued to campaign throughout COVID-19, posting daily on my Facebook pages, Twitter and other social media. I have an educational radio talk show. I am working with my team on strategies to transition to a virtual campaign and since I am the candidate that is committed to serve and has the courage to lead, I am optimistic because our children need us and if you look at the data of Alachua Public Schools, it has not changed in the last five years and it is time for new leadership. Our kids cannot read and our kids need to be poured into more by us as adults and told that they can be successful whether they attend college or not!”

Kim Barton

Kim Barton, who is both a candidate (currently running unopposed) and the Supervisor of Elections (SOE), responded to questions that relate to voters, and how she will deal with the upcoming elections.

There has been a lot of discussion about a 100% mail-in ballot election in Florida because of the pandemic, and while Barton may encourage voting by mail, she does not see a pathway to it being the only voting option.

“At  this time in the state of Florida we are not totally ready to support a 100% mail-ballot election for the 2020 Primary and General Elections,” she said. “However, we are encouraging voters to vote-by-mail. There are voters who do not wish to vote-by-mail and would prefer to vote in-person.” 

 In a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis, Tammy Jones, Lee County’s elections supervisor, and the Florida Supervisors of Elections (FSE) President, called for him to approve a series of recommended temporary changes in elections statutes to accommodate more absentee ballot voting and for longer early voting timespans. Barton too, is in favor of extending early voting.

“I do support the option for any SOE to determine how many days (up to 22 days, including election day) of early voting.  Every county is different. Some county’s budgets will not allow for that. Alachua County will more than likely expand but have not made a final decision pending the Governor’s action.”

 Barton also believes flexibility is the the key to successfully managing the upcoming elections.

“Our goal as SOE is to ensure that Florida’s elections remain accessible to all voters. We faced many significant challenges in the presidential preference primary (losing poll workers, losing two polling locations and difficulty acquiring supplies needed, etc.) and if this pandemic continues, we need the flexibility so that we may efficiently prepare for the Primary and General Election. We anticipate making some changes, but this would all depend on the Governor’s response to SOEs requests.

Despite the loss of pollworkers and polling places, Barton has seen positives in the form of volunteers still willing to serve.

 “If the pandemic continues, we do expect to see more current poll workers drop out due to being in the high risk category. We continue to receive applications and interest of new voters desiring to be election workers in spite of COVID19. It will be very important as mentioned to the Governor in the SOEs letter, we must be made a priority for the acquisition of supplies like hand sanitizer and other resources to ensure in-person voting is in accordance with the CDC and Florida Department of Health guidelines.”

Editor’s Note

In a weekly series called “Pandemic Politics”, Mainstreet Daily News will follow and report on the 22 candidates running for office in Alachua County. This is the first installmant.

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