From the moment ballots began arriving in Florida voters' mailboxes a week ago, charged-up Democrats started voting as early as they possibly could — outpacing Republicans two-to-one so far, a development that’s giving Joe Biden supporters a glimmer of hope in ultra-close Florida.
Republicans are voting too, of course, and the ballots already cast in a state that awards 29 electoral votes, essential for President Donald Trump to win re-election, tell a significant story and send a potentially ominous sign to his party.
The 341,877 ballots cast as of Friday represent only 3.4% of the 10 million registered voters in Florida, so the battle is young, with Democrats returning more than Republicans, 184,552 to 93,212.
The rapid response startled seasoned political analysts. After Broward reported it had received 24,000 ballots on Wednesday, one Democratic strategist texted “OMG. ... They are coming back really fast.” By Friday morning, 41,962 people in Broward had voted by mail.
But it’s not just the overall lead, it’s the apparent enthusiasm that’s potentially significant, and a warning sign for Trump. If Democrats are more energized about voting than Republicans, that’s good news for Biden.
Of the ballots supervisor of elections sent to Florida voters by the deadline on Thursday, 7.6% of the ballots that went to Democrats and 5.6% of the ballots that went to Republicans have been cast, according to a database run by University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald. It’s likely that the vast majority of ballots cast by Democrats included votes for Biden and ballots cast by Republicans went to Trump.
If the early numbers hold, it’s significant because Republicans usually do better than Democrats in mail votes. In 2016, Republicans cast 58,244 more mail ballots than Democrats. Trump won the state by 112,911 votes, just 1.2 percentage points ahead of Hillary Clinton.
Another big potential plus for Democrats: they’re ahead of Republicans in mail-ballot requests. Democrats have requested 2.4 million mail ballots in Florida, compared to 1.7 million for Republicans and 1.1 million for no party affiliation/independent voters. Nationwide, data compiled by McDonald show almost 2.8 million people had voted as of Friday. He said other states are experiencing the same phenomenon as Florida: Democrats requesting and returning mail ballots more than Republicans.
“The rates of vote-by-mail ballot returns so far show clear momentum on the Democratic side,” Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement. “Democrats in Florida are turning out in full force; we’re maximizing turnout while Republicans are turning on each other.”
Neither Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, nor a Trump campaign spokeswoman responded to requests for comment.
Before Democrats celebrate, the numbers might be good now, but not later. Polling has consistently shown that Democrats are much more concerned about COVID-19 than Republicans and that Democrats are much more likely to vote by mail and Republicans are much more likely to vote in person. If that happens, voting at early voting sites and on Election Day could cancel out any Democratic advantage in mail voting.
The numbers leave out a huge potential pool of voters. State law gives elections supervisors a window to send the ballots to voters. Among the state’s biggest counties, all Democratic strongholds, Palm Beach County fulfilled all its ballot requests on Sept. 24 and Broward send them in batches, on Sept. 24, 25 and 28. But Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county, didn’t send out its ballots until Thursday, so people are just starting to receive them.
“We still haven’t gotten to the point where I have drawn from this that Biden is going to win Florida,” McDonald said. “This is just the beginning. We still have a month left before the election.”
What’s going on?
Background: Florida changed its voting laws after the messy 2000 George W. Bush-Al Gore presidential election. Reforms enacted in the aftermath allowed people to easily vote by mail. The previous system of absentee ballots required a reason, such as being out of town on Election Day. Ever since, the state’s voters have increasingly moved to mail voting and early voting at regional centers in each county.
Coronavirus: In 2020, with voters concerned about the coronavirus, mail voting increased in the March presidential primary and surged for the August state and local primaries. And interest has increased exponentially for the November presidential election. As of Friday morning, 5.2 million Florida voters had requested mail ballots, up from 3.3 million in 2016. In Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, 1.5 million people have asked for vote-by-mail ballots, compared to 850,000 in 2016.
Trump effect: It could reflect a sudden increase in Republican concerns about voting by mail. Trump has repeatedly asserted, even though there isn’t evidence to support his claims, that mail voting is rife with fraud. Republicans are clearly worried that the president’s rhetoric has hurt the party’s efforts to get people to vote by mail for Trump. Insiders have said they’re worried, and main thing visitors to Trump’s website see is how to request a mail ballot. And they’ve been sending mailers to Florida voters telling them, “Request your vote by mail absentee ballot today. President Trump is counting on you.”
Cannibalizing voters: It’s possible the ballots coming back quickly are simply ballots from people who would have voted anyway, by mail, at an early voting center, or at a neighborhood polling place on Election Day.
As the voter registration deadline looms on Monday, the numbers are trending in Republicans' favor. They’ve substantially narrowed the Democrats' advantage in registered voters.
As of Aug. 31, the latest figures from the Division of Elections show 5 million registered Republicans, 5.2 million Democrats and 3.7 million no party affiliation independent voters. (Another 188,587 people were registered in various minor parties.)
While that’s a slight advantage for the Democrats, it’s a gain for the Republicans.
In August 2016, there were 4.5 million registered Republicans in Florida, 4.7 million Democrats and 2.9 million no party voters.
At the end of August, there were 183,596 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida.
At the end of August four years ago, there were 274,272 more Democrats than Republicans.
For most of 2020, Democrats shifted almost entirely to a virtual campaign, which hobbled traditional efforts at registering voters. Before the pandemic, Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez visited a storefront office in Oakland Park, one of eight in the state with four more planned, serving as bases for staffers and volunteers to fan out to register voters.
Republicans shifted some activities to the virtual world, but maintained more in-person work and offices in key areas, including Palm Beach County. Before Labor Day, the Trump campaign reported supporters had knocked on 1 million doors in Florida and had multiple events.
McDonald said it’s too early to read too much into the voter registration numbers. He said supervisors of elections efforts to clean up voter rolls based on people who move are more likely to remove Democrats, and the numbers don’t yet show the voter registration drives leading up to Monday’s deadline.
But, McDonald added, “It is possible because of COVID that Democrats aren’t going to be able to do the normal robust activities they usually do before the registration deadline.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of Democrats and Republicans registered to vote in Florida in 2016.
Skyler Swisher can be reached at email@example.com, 561-243-6634 or @SkylerSwisher