Florida Democrats Hope Abortion and Marijuana Ballot Amendments Will Boost Turnout

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This November, Florida voters will have to decide on the future of abortion rights in their state. As Democrats try to leverage abortion to mobilize a reluctant electorate, the party hopes that pro-choice voters — many of whom are young and critical of Joe Biden's candidacy — support the presidential incumbent while trying to protect their rights.

On April 1, the Florida Supreme Court cleared the way for a six-week abortion ban. That same day, the conservative-leaning judges also approved a ballot measure that could codify abortion in the state constitution if approved in November. Soon after, the Biden campaign expressed a new interest in turning Florida blue, with hopes that the abortion issue can give them a fighting chance in a state that is not the battleground it used to be.

"I think that [the abortion ballot] will bring a big change," says Paulina Trujillo, member of the University of Florida's College Democrats. "There's a tangible thing that we can vote on. In general, it'll be a driving force that could bring people to the ballot."

For the past two electoral cycles, Democrats in Florida have struggled to generate concrete traction at the state level. In the 2022 midterm elections, when only 22% of young voters turned out to the ballot, Democrats suffered staggering defeats, even in blue strongholds like Miami.

But as Alexis Dorman, president of the College Democrats in Florida, sees it, this ballot measure could become a resource to tackle low turnout. “I think that regardless of party affiliation, people support abortion access,” Dorman tells Teen Vogue. "Even if they don't support abortion, they don't support the government being involved in their decisions. It really is a selling point for a lot of people to turn out to vote."

Still, experts say, in a state like Florida, which has leaned Republican for years, forming a hypothetical pro-choice coalition favorable for Biden's reelection is nothing short of an uphill battle. It’s a challenge that is not only contingent on how much money national Democrats decide to invest in the state, but also on the ability of Florida Democrats to execute a compelling on-the-ground campaign.

“The fact is, the Democratic Party here is very unorganized, right?” says Lonna Atkeson, professor of political science and director of the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University. "It's just a mess!"

Atkeson adds, "They can't really do a coordinated campaign. So the question is, if they get more resources, are they going to be able to pull it together and campaign on this issue?"

While this ballot measure could become a mobilizing event in Florida, pollsters warn that there is no easy way to predict how a presidential election will play out. “Many people believe that abortion could be the silver bullet,” says Eduardo Gamarra, professor of political science and founding director of the Latino Public Opinion Forum at Florida International University. "But I caution: There are so many moving parts in American politics."

In addition to abortion, a separate ballot measure that could legalize the use of recreational marijuana in Florida might give Democrats an approach to mobilize young voters in the state, says Gamarra. But many factors go into a voter’s choice for president. “Most of us are not single-issue voters," says Gamarra. "But it looks like abortion is a huge issue.”

Gamarra explains further, “So you have this idea that, somehow, if only young people voted, things would change. Well, it looks like when young people vote, when they go out and vote in higher numbers, it's because they're being motivated by something. Maybe a candidate Obama, for example, or an issue — maybe abortion is the issue.”

He notes, "The largest group of voters, the most disciplined group of voters, are people over 65."

“But again," says Gamarra, "we won't know until after November.”

The increased visibility that protecting abortion or legalizing marijuana brings to the election is likely to have a big effect on local and senatorial races, Atkeson says, but it remains uncertain if state-level measures will heavily influence a voter's choice for president. “At the presidential level, things are different,” she says. "The president also is responsible for the economy, for taxes, and for inflation. To know how an issue at the state level is going to affect voting at the top, that is a little more uncertain.”

Moreover, issues like Biden's handling of the war in Gaza might motivate young voters to boycott his reelection, perhaps approving ballot measures they support but declining to cast a ballot for a presidential candidate — a form of protest similar to the Uncommitted voter campaign during this year's Democratic primaries.

“You can say, ‘I support abortion rights, and I want abortion rights in Florida, and I don't like either of these guys!’" Atkeson says. "Especially in more red states, we might see more split votes. There's too much uncertainty because we can separate those choices. Maybe Israel is the most important issue to me or maybe inflation is.”

Atkeson tells Teen Vogue further, “Is abortion going to be connected to the presidential campaign? I do think that's going to be a mobilizer. How much? it's going to depend in part on how much that issue is focused on by the candidates in the state."

She asks, “Is Florida going to be a competitive state? Are they [Florida Democrats] going to fight for it? Or are they just going to let it go like they did in 2022?”

Despite the challenging prospects, Florida Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried says that new state leadership and an outspoken commitment from national partners to campaign in Florida could help them turn the tide after a series of electoral defeats. “The 2022 election book is closed. This is a new Democratic Party,” says Fried.

“We have been able to unite the Florida Democratic Party, and all of our coalition partners, to get back to the basics," Fried explains. "That is talking to voters, doing voter registration and year-round engagement. Florida has the second-largest student body population, second to California, and this is a generation who has a right to be mad. Our national partners, including Biden's campaign, are coming to Florida because Florida is winnable.”

Fried also points to recent local victories in Jacksonville and central Florida as proof of concept that a Democratic campaign could still motivate young voters in the state.

Experts agree that President Biden could have a fighting chance in Florida if his campaign is able to establish a significant presence before the election. "A lot can happen between now and November," says Sharon D. Wright Austin, professor of political science at the University of Florida. "As a matter of fact, if you even compare the polls you're seeing now to polls from six months or so ago, it looked like the Biden campaign was just dead in the water. It looked like he had absolutely no chance of winning."

Austin continues, "It all really borders on turnout, and for young voters especially — they will decide the outcome of this election. So if they are really concerned about certain issues, then they really do need to vote and make their voice heard, and also they need to try to encourage other young people to vote as well."

The number of registered Republican voters in Florida has significantly grown since 2020, but the number of independents and Democrats in the state suggests that a competitive race is still possible. “I think there's a chance,” says Gamarra, "but it's going to take a heck of a lot more organization, and a heck of a lot more targeted strategy."

Gamarra says that “with a good strategy, wishful thinking might work. But for the Florida Democratic Party, wishful thinking with doing what they've been doing for the past three years, it’s not going to work."

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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