Thursday, November 15, 2018
  • The Buzz
  • From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Jemele Hill’s vote was nearly derailed by a tweet, but it will count, elections official says

When she registered to vote in Florida, Jemele Hill chose to affiliate with the Republican Party.

The decision, she said, was pragmatic.

"I just have noticed in other voter suppression situations or states where this is a real issue, black Democratic voters are often targeted," she said. "I thought registering as a Democrat would be basically like waving a red flag in front of a bull."

More than a decade later, Hill is somewhat of a lightning rod for hardline conservatives in the party she's still officially registered with. Controversy first swirled around her in 2017, when as an ESPN host she drew a White House rebuke for calling President Donald Trump a white supremacist on Twitter.

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Ultimately, it was another tweet that helped imperil Hill's 2018 vote in Orange County. On Oct. 21, she posted that she had recently moved to Los Angeles but was flying back to Florida to cast a vote for Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum. Someone, apparently, complained to the state that she was trying to vote here but no longer lived in Florida.

When Hill showed up to vote in Orlando recently, she said, there was a problem with her registration. She ended up having to cast a provisional ballot, one of hundreds filed in the county, and later wrote an essay for The Atlantic titled, plainly: “I Still Don’t Know If My Vote Will Be Counted in Florida.”

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles confirmed Hill's story to the Tampa Bay Times and said that her ballot was accepted by the local canvassing board last Friday. Her vote, he said, counted.

Nicholas Shannin, the lawyer connected to the supervisor's office who spoke to Hill to clear up her voting issue, said hers was a rare case. A tweet, he said, would normally never be enough to remove someone from the voter rolls. And Hill, he said, was never actually purged.

"We are not searching social media. We are not engaging in election by tweet," Shannin said.

Clearly, he said, someone was mad about Hill's announcement that she was coming to Florida to vote for Gillum. Hill wrote that the elections official she spoke to answered a question about how the supervisor's office became aware of her tweet by saying "it was a red brigade."

Shannin said he does not recall exactly what he told Hill, but "it was likely someone with a partisan opinion who had contacted the state," which then flagged her registration for the supervisor.

The local elections office, he said, will normally contact a voter if they get information from a bank or other organization that calls into question someone's status. But Hill's tweet, the complaint and her vote happened in a short period of time, he said — just about 24 hours to his memory.

"One phone call and it was done," he said. "We had it verified."

Hill wrote that she has never rented her Florida home to anybody, that she pays property taxes and has her bank statements sent there. As a journalist, she said, she bounces between cities, but Florida is her base.

"They had all the facts but they allowed somebody with an agenda to essentially put my vote in jeopardy in a very close race," she later told the Tampa Bay Times. "If I didn't speak support for Andrew Gillum, and if I didn't have that run-in with Donald Trump, I don't think this happens at all."

Though "exhilarated" to hear her vote counted, Hill added: "It's really hard for me not to take issue with how this all happened."

Provisional ballots are filed when someone does not have an ID or if there is some discrepancy that leads elections officials to decide a voter needs to be further vetted and cleared before a ballot is counted. The ballots are routinely a source of controversy as hundreds are tossed aside in every major election. Local canvassing boards render final decisions.

In Orange, Cowles said, voters filed 420 provisional ballots this year and 86 were accepted.

Hill was fortunate, she said, to be acting as the master of ceremonies at a banquet in Florida around the time of the election. She got to vote in person, and later she had a platform to share her story.

But voting, she said, brings too many obstacles for too many people.

"It just brings to mind how voter suppression and racism continues to reinvent itself," she said. "Right now for a country that prides itself on democracy, we seem to in actual practice hate democracy, or we act that way. Because it shouldn't be that difficult for people to vote."

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