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Polson and Howland head to runoff for Jacksonville council seat

Democrat Tracye Polson and Republican Nick Howland got the highest share of the vote, and will face a runoff election in February.
Claire Heddles
Democrat Tracye Polson and Republican Nick Howland got the highest share of the vote and will face a runoff election in February.

There's no winner yet in the campaign to fill the late Tommy Hazouri's council seat. Democrat Tracye Polson received about 37% of the vote for the City Council at-large seat, and Republican Nick Howland got about 36% of the vote, according to unofficial results from the Duval County Supervisor of Elections.

The two will face off in a runoff election Feb. 22.

The two other candidates in the race, Republican Howland Russell and Demorat James Coach Jacobs, each got about 14% of the vote.

Fewer than 81,000 voters cast a ballot in the special election, 12.5% of eligible voters. The last countywide primary election in 2019 saw 24.5% of voters turn out, but it included a mayoral race.

Duval County Democratic Party congratulated Polson Tuesday evening for heading to the run-off election.

"While [Tommy Hazouri] is no longer with us, we will honor his legacy by electing a Democratic successor that will fight to secure the positive change he long sought to see," Duval County Democratic Party Chairman, Daniel Henry, wrote.

Tommy Hazouri was the only Democrat of the five at-large seats on council, even though the majority of voters are Democrats. At-large members are tasked with representing the entire county.

The Duval Republican Party issued a statement Tuesday night criticizing Polson.

"It's clear that Duval County isn't ready for a radical 'woke' Democrat and hypocrite who supports defunding [the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office] for regular people while she sits in her gated community mansion," party chairman Dean Black wrote. "On February 22nd, we will elect Republican Nick Howland."

This was the first Duval election since Florida passed stricter voting laws this summer. Under the new law, voters have to request mail ballots more frequently, ballot drop boxes have stricter guidelines, and signature matching for mail ballots is more closely regulated.

Duval Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan has also come under fire from voting rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers for closing five early voting sites.

“When you begin to close sites, we’re now dealing with signage issues, low turnout issues, and voters not knowing where to go," Democratic state Rep. Tracie Davis said last week.

Hogan said the closures were necessary because low turnout was expected. Reporting by WJCT News found the closures disproportionately impacted low-income residents.

The Duval County Republican Party celebrated the turnout of Republican voters on social media Tuesday.

"Democrats went into Election Day with a double digit lead and WE turned out in BIG numbers and overtook them!" the Duval GOP wrote on Twitter.

Voting precinct sign December 7, 2021
Claire Heddles

Far more Republicans than Democrats voted in person Tuesday. Democrats had sent in more mail-in ballots last week. In effect, there was an almost even split by party in total ballots cast in the election, almost 37,000 per party.

Victoria Turner was at a downtown voting precinct Tuesday and said she felt in the dark both about where to vote and the candidates' positions leading up to election day. 

“I am Republican. I was gonna vote Republican only because that's what I am," Turner said. "But as far as knowing them and what they're about, I couldn't tell you, I couldn't tell you, it would be a guessing game.”

Another voter, Damien Leahy, cast a ballot in person Tuesday and said he found information on social media about the candidates that persuaded him to vote for Tracye Polson.

"I've been busy. We're getting into the holidays and stuff like that," Leahy said. "But over the last couple of weeks, I saw a bunch of posts on social media."

Polson had the largest campaign budget, at more than $300,000 dollars. About two-thirds of that money was from her own pocket. Campaign finance records show her campaign spent most of the money on phone banks advertising.

Republican Nick Howland had about $90,000 in his campaign fund. Most of it came from businesses and political committees.

Voter Emily Wasek also cast a ballot in person Tuesday afternoon. She said she was compelled to go to the polls because of the difference each voter can make in elections with low turnout.

"Elections are won by the smallest of margins," Wasek said. "It really does make a difference when you come out and vote for these things."

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.