Don’t let the calendar fool you: the Florida presidential primary is already underway.
Though the Sunshine State won’t officially vote for presidential candidates until March 17, thousands of ballots have already been mailed to voters stationed overseas. Dozens have already been returned.
Today, Hillsborough County’s and Pinellas County’s supervisors of elections are shipping out about 2,000 overseas ballots each, with Pasco County’s supervisor of elections sending out another 766 overseas ballots.
On Thursday, the state’s 67 local election offices will begin sending massive numbers of mail ballots to Florida voters in the states, kicking off a one-week stretch in which 1.6 million ballots will be sent through the mail — all of which can be immediately filled out and returned.
Next week, Hillsborough will send out 163,000 and Pasco will send 55,000. On Feb. 11, Pinellas will send out 225,000 ballots to domestic voters.
“You could easily say the election has already begun,” said Tammy Jones, the head of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.
According to the Florida Division of Elections, some 789,000 Democratic voters have requested primary mail ballots. Another 792,000 Republicans have requested mail ballots for a primary all-but-guaranteed to overwhelmingly choose President Donald Trump.
Fewer than 100 ballots have been returned to elections offices around the state so far, according to the state, which began tracking returns Friday.
Voters who have yet to ask for a mail ballot can continue to request one up until March 7. Voters can request a mail ballot from their county’s elections supervisor online, by phone, in person or in writing.
Dustin Chase with the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections strongly encouraged those doing mail-in ballots to return them at least a week before the March 17 primary “to ensure the USPS has plenty of time to get it back to us.”
Chase also said that “from our perspective, everything is going great” regarding the start of this election season.
The Florida Democratic Party says it has sent out 300,000 vote-by-mail request forms to voters they’ve identified as more likely to vote if they receive a mail ballot. Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the state party, said the organization plans to continue signing people up until the deadline.
“We’re chasing them,” he said. “We know if voters vote in the presidential preference primary they’re definitely going to vote in the general.”
Florida has a “closed” primary system, meaning Democratic primary elections are only open to registered Democrats and Republican primaries are only open to Republicans. Voters have until Feb. 18 to register to vote and be able to participate.
Florida’s political parties have aggressively encouraged voters to request mail ballots because mail voters are easier to track and target, and on average more likely to vote. The state provides the identities of mail voters to the campaigns and parties, which pepper voters with phone calls, text messages, digital ads and mailers.
Trends from recent years suggest a third of the primary vote will be cast by mail. But it’s difficult to predict when those ballots will be cast, since mail ballots count as long as they are properly filled out and received by election headquarters by 7 p.m. on Election Day. Overseas ballots will be counted for up to 10 days after the election as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day.
Mail ballots have also gone out already in California, which holds its election on March 3, known as Super Tuesday, the biggest day of the presidential primary in terms of delegates awarded.
Still, Florida’s extended primary-by-mail creates a dynamic whereby votes already count but the state won’t announce its results for another six weeks. That means campaigns try to bank votes now.
That could benefit former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire who is ignoring early primary states in favor of delegate-rich contests, such as the Florida and California primaries.
Bloomberg has hired dozens of campaign staffers and aides in Florida, and is in the process of opening 20 state offices. He’s also spent millions on TV commercials, which continue to run in a state with 10 costly media markets. Bloomberg visited Tampa and Miami Sunday, shortly after some of the first overseas ballots were mailed out.
“The Bloomberg team will be chasing ballots on the ground and is the only campaign in Florida with the resources, staff and infrastructure to chase vote-by-mail ballots aggressively,” Florida campaign spokeswoman Caroline Rowland said. “We understand the importance of doing this in the primary, which is one of the main reasons our campaign has been building up to the level we are at now.”
Other candidates are working in Florida, too, although the candidates themselves are heavily focused on the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses and other early primary states with February election dates.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren hired her Florida state director back in September and will benefit from the support of the grassroots organization New Florida Majority, which has endorsed her. She is opening a campaign office Saturday in Orlando. Her campaign says its months-long presence in Florida has helped prepare for the start of voting.
Former Vice President Joe Biden — who has consistently led in Florida polls — has hired a Florida director as well, and enlisted a vast stable of surrogates to help him campaign in Florida while he spends all his time in Iowa. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is also using surrogates to promote vote- by-mail through social media and, according to his campaign, is preparing to chase and bank mail votes.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this story.