Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Hernando County Democrat uses robocall to narrow mail-in ballot gap

If President Barack Obama wins Florida for a second time, he'll have plenty of people to thank for a re-election victory that at the moment hardly seems like a sure thing.

One of Obama's foot soldiers is Steve Zeledon, a 77-year-old living in Hernando County.

For the past two weeks, the retired Litton Industries executive and chairman of the Hernando County Democrats has coordinated a statewide grass roots telephone effort to get Democrats to request absentee ballots — a strategy that Republicans have long excelled at in Florida.

Zeledon says more than 2.6 million automated "robocalls" have been made to Democrats in nearly 50 counties.

The recorded message featuring Zeledon's voice is different for every county and it cleverly suggests that voting by mail is a new phenomenon in Florida. It isn't.

"This is your Palm Beach County Democratic Party calling," one message begins. "We're asking that all Democrats use the new mail-in ballot system in order to ensure that our ballots are counted."

A voter is urged to press 1 on the telephone keypad, and the call is then transferred to the county elections office to request a mail ballot.

"It's an impulse buy," Zeledon said. "When you press that button, you're making a commitment."

He said about 420,000 voters have answered the robocall and 29,000 had requested mail ballots as of Monday. The Palm Beach elections office reports getting thousands of such calls.

In Hernando County, the absentee ballot robocall system is working so well that the elections office is getting an automated phone line to tell callers to be patient due to "high call volume."

"Our phones are ringing off the hook," said Elizabeth Townsend, operations manager in the Hernando elections office and the Democratic candidate for the supervisor's job. "We have had a lot of missed calls."

Across Florida, Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration by about 440,000, yet trail in absentee ballot requests by nearly 45,000. Democrats favor early voting over voting by mail.

Republicans claim a 5-point lead in absentee returns and Tuesday will hold an event in Fort Lauderdale claiming the party's 10 millionth voter contact in Florida.

The GOP is blanketing the state with a three-page fold-out mailer and a banner reading: "Important vote-by-mail application enclosed. ... Apply to vote by mail today."

The piece contains a written request for an absentee ballot (plus a second request for a family member, as the law allows) and a pre-printed return envelope to the local elections office.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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