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By Gwen McKinney

With pleasure and passion, Salandra Benton could easily claim the status as Florida’s MVP Queen for Maximizing Voter Participation.

She breathes civic engagement. And if you know her and live in the state, it’s highly unlikely that you are not on the Florida voter rolls. The Philadelphia native relocated to Ft. Lauderdale in 1987.  Though still describing herself as  “A Philly Girl,” she is an unwavering stalwart for a state that has been boycotted and reviled for racist and right-wing trends.

Benton gets irritated when Florida is dismissed as a voting force unworthy of external attention or support. Despite the ruby red political tint and the statewide shift from electing progressive candidates to extremists, she says no one can afford to write off her state.

“We are the battleground!” declared Benton, head of the Florida Coalition for Black Civic Participation and the Florida Black Women’s Roundtable. “We are living and fighting in the belly of the beast and we refuse to roll over and die.”

Over the past few decades, the “Sunshine State” has witnessed an influx of south of the border immigration and migration of northeast career transplants and retirees, creating a diverse demographic stew.

Home to the two leading Republican presidential candidates, in recent years Florida has also advanced anti-democratic policies that have caught fire nationally. Throwing down the gauntlet in his presidential bid, Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed Florida the state where “woke goes to die.”

For better or worse, Florida is the nation’s bellwether, says Benton. What happens in Florida does not stay in Florida. Every shot fired there ricochets around the nation: Assaults on diversity and inclusion, bans on books, revisions of Black history, purging of the voter rolls and hateful policies against LGBTQ people. The brewing climate is what some call “the New Selma.”

Benton makes no apologies or defense. “Florida is rich in history, but they want to take away our history and steal our children’s identity. Florida is rich in diversity, but they also want to take away our diversity. Our people are under siege!”

She issued a call to action across the country. “We need people to join us! We can lead the fight and achieve solutions to improve the lives of people living in Florida. That spills over to the nation.”

In October, Under the theme Power of the Ballot – We Won’t Be Erased, Benton was joined by local leaders and a national coalition of racial justice activists for a five-city bus tour. Crisscrossing the state, they hit Historically Black Colleges, community centers, Sunday church services, wing joints and town hall meetings.

The push is to register and educate voters across the state to participate in every election, from local school boards to the presidential race.

Despite right-wing rancor, Florida has generated landmark initiatives and electoral trends worthy of replication.

Not without an intensive fight that continues today, in 2018 voters approved a ballot initiative, Amendment 4, that aimed to restore the rights of 1.7 million people with felony convictions. Florida voters also delivered a landmark ballot initiative in 2020 that will boost the minimum wage to $15. And in the 2022 midterm elections, voters elected Maxwell Frost, a 25-year old Afro-Cuban committed to gun safety and LBGTQ rights, who is the youngest member of Congress.

“To grow stronger, sometimes you need to start at what feels like the weakest place, where the ground feels the hardest to move. That makes the greatest and most impactful change,” says Benton. “We’re here to plant seeds of unity, empowerment and  hope.”