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Activists Rally Black Voters In Traditional Red Counties In Florida's Panhandle

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump is planning a rally in Pensacola Friday night. It's in the Florida panhandle, which is very important for Republicans. The usual dynamic is that Democrats get a lot of votes out of places like Miami, which Republicans balance out with big margins in the panhandle. Some activists in the panhandle want to change that. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following their efforts.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Phyllis Hale-Benjamin has come to a strip center on the industrial west side of Pensacola to look for voters. First stop - the Mr. Bubbles Laundromat.

PHYLLIS HALE-BENJAMIN: How y'all doing?

ELLIOTT: Wearing a Black voters matter mask and armed with a box of new pens, the former hairdresser is collecting names and numbers for a get-out-the-vote effort.

HALE-BENJAMIN: If you need a ride to the polls, if you need to know where your precinct is, whatever you need to know, if you call that number, it'll give you all the information.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, OK.

ELLIOTT: Kenneth McElroy tells her he's 43 and has voted in every election since he was old enough. He says there's a lot on the line in this election in the middle of a pandemic.

KENNETH MCELROY: Health, safety, living, you know? A lot of people I know - I know - I'm homeless now because of Sally.

ELLIOTT: Hurricane Sally destroyed his home, and he's been living out of his car for more than a month now. McElroy won't be voting for Donald Trump.

MCELROY: He ain't fit for the part, you know? This man ain't listening to nobody, you know? It's like he got everybody scared or something up in there.

ELLIOTT: Outside the laundromat, the canvasser, Phyllis Hale-Benjamin, expresses similar sentiment.

HALE-BENJAMIN: Some of the things that have come out of his word - out of his mouth as a president has been very disappointing to me.

ELLIOTT: She's voting for Democrat Joe Biden.

HALE-BENJAMIN: I don't think he'll be able to change as much as he thinks he can, but at least we won't have to hear all the noise.

ELLIOTT: Hale-Benjamin says many of her friends are white and Republican, and this election has strained relationships.

HALE-BENJAMIN: They scared to talk to me and I'm scared to talk to them because you don't know what's going to come out of somebody's mouth and all that. And I don't think we should have to walk around like that.

ELLIOTT: The political divide by race is evident when you look at voter registration in Florida. Only 1.3% of registered Republicans identify as Black. Here in northwest Florida, a new poll from Republican pollster The Listener Group shows Trump with a sizable lead in the region, up more than 28 points. That's typical of the GOP advantage in the panhandle, but that isn't deterring activists trying to ramp up the Black vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE GET UP MORNING SHOW")

SHARIA BEASLY: Good morning, "Get Up Morning Show."

ELLIOTT: The Pensacola Internet radio station "Real Women Radio" has been registering voters and trying to get people fired up about the election. Co-founder Sharia Beasly.

BEASLY: I've been preaching for the last couple of months, vote, vote, vote, vote, vote, vote, vote. Have a plan. Get your plan in order. Go do what you got to do. Take your mom and them, your dad and them, your sister and them, your brother and them. Take everybody. Go vote (laughter).

ELLIOTT: Beasly says she hasn't always been so engaged and recalls skipping the presidential election back in 2000 when she was in her 20s.

BEASLY: What I did was I thought at that point Al Gore had the presidency in the bag. I was working and I was like, why should I even go and vote?

ELLIOTT: Only to discover later that Florida's results were so close, the state was headed for a recount and prolonged election dispute that resulted in a victory for Republican George W. Bush. She's been passionate about convincing people to vote ever since, despite what she perceives as obstacles to exercising the franchise - long lines for early voting and problems with Florida's online voter registration system, for instance. Beasly is also concerned about the specter of armed militias trying to intimidate voters. She thinks the president has empowered extremists.

BEASLY: Trump has said that he's not a racist, but I just think that doors have been opened up to say, go ahead, it's a free country, do whatever you want to do.

ELLIOTT: But she's not backing down. "Real Women Radio" is hosting several events leading up to November 3. They'll also set up on Election Day at polling sites throughout the Florida Panhandle to generate enthusiasm. That's what canvasser David Sims has been trying to do on the streets of Pensacola.

DAVID SIMS: They try to silence us and that's why we're out here.

ELLIOTT: He's been working with ex offenders re-enfranchised by a constitutional amendment approved by Florida voters two years ago. But the legislature has complicated things, he says.

SIMS: They pass one law so you can vote and they pass another law saying you got to pay your fines. You know, there's further disenfranchisement.

ELLIOTT: Sims believes the system is stacked against encouraging full participation by Black voters.

SIMS: If I know you're going to vote against me, I'm going to make it where you can't vote at all.

ELLIOTT: Floridians are already voting. As of yesterday, more than 3 1/2 million ballots have been cast either by mail or early voting. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Pensacola, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.