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Halfway through early voting, less than 5% of voters have cast ballots in council race

Claire Heddles
Daniel Evans is one of about 300 voters who've stopped at the downtown Supervisor of Elections Office to vote since early voting started Saturday.

Halfway through early voting, less than 5% of Duval voters have cast a ballot in the race to replace the late City Councilman Tommy Hazouri. About 31,000 voters have a cast a ballot.

More Democrats have voted than their counterparts on the right in the special election so far. Fifty-one percent of ballots are from Democratic voters and 36% from Republicans.

While Democrats have typically outperformed Republicans in early voting in past elections, they're casting a higher percentage of the ballots in this year's special election than last year's presidential election, when just 44% of the early ballots were from Democrats.

According to voter turnout data from the election supervisor's office, the highest voter turnout rates have been concentrated Atlantic Beach, Riverside and Mandarin.

Claire Heddles
The early voting site at Murray Hill United Methodist Church in Riverside stands nearly empty Tuesday afternoon.

Daniel Evans stopped by the election supervisor's office Wednesday morning to cast a ballot. He's one of about 300 people who've voted at the downtown early voting location since Saturday.

"It doesn’t matter whether it’s big or whether it’s small; it’s an election,” Evans said. "That’s why people like me died, people like you died, shed blood, so that we could vote in all the elections."

He said he usually votes at that location because it's walking distance from his home. But not everyone is able to vote where they did last year this round. Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan closed five early voting sites, citing historically low voter turnout during special elections.

Voting advocates decried the move as biased, but Hogan said his office doesn't take into account race, gender, age or party affiliation when choosing which voting sites to close.

"We are concerned about the geographic distribution of those sites in order to serve the most voters and to the best of our ability distribute them equally in terms of numbers of voters per site," Hogan wrote in an email.

But reporting by WJCT News found most of the site closures were in neighborhoods with more low-income and Black residents than the rest of the city.

Michelle Guglielmo Gillam also voted in downtown Jacksonville Wednesday and said while the location was convenient for her, she is worried about whether everyone has access to an early voting site.

“I have a special needs child and when he is of voting age, I want to ensure that he'll be able to vote as easily as possible," Gillam said, "whether or not he can travel to a voting site."

Voting rights groups have called on Mike Hogan in recent weeks to better inform voters about the changes in early voting compared with last year.

"I'm here to implore Mike Hogan begin a public awareness campaign," League of Women Voters president Jean Allen said from the steps of City Hall last week. "Some of the early voting sites he closed are in communities that rely on public transportation and are used by those who work full time."

Claire Heddles
Voter Barry Barrett says he always tries to vote early to avoid crowds.

Unless one of the four candidates in the At-large Group 3 race wins 50% of the vote in the Dec. 7 election, there will be a runoff election in February. Michelle Guglielmo Gillam says even with the high likelihood of a runoff, she said this election is just as vital.

"We really need to take advantage of every single opportunity to vote," Gillam said. "Even if there's a runoff, I'll be there again to vote.”

Fellow voter Barry Barrett went out to vote Wednesday morning and said he's driven to cast a ballot in this election because he wants to see a good replacement for Tommy Hazouri on the council.

“Tommy Hazouri was a great guy, and they need somebody in there to follow through with his ideas," Barrett. "That’s why I voted today.”

Hazouri was the only Democrat of the five at-large City Council members. There are four candidates running for the at-large seat, two Republicans and two Democrats.

All Duval voters are eligible to vote in the special election and can vote at any of the 15 early voting sites from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday, Dec. 5.

On election day, voters are eligible to vote only at their precinct locations between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.