Florida Democrats aimed to register 1 million voters by now. They didn’t come close.

Florida Republicans are closer to parity in voter registration than they’ve been in decades.
Former Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum speaks during the Florida Democratic Party and Forward Florida Action Partnership to register voters in Florida held at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Former Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum speaks during the Florida Democratic Party and Forward Florida Action Partnership to register voters in Florida held at the University of South Florida in Tampa. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Aug. 6, 2020|Updated Aug. 6, 2020

Florida Democrats have a problem: there were supposed to be more of them by now.

Following narrow losses in 2018 races for Florida governor and U.S. Senate, Democrats emerged from the midterms with a new resolve to register more voters in the nation’s largest swing state as a path to victory in 2020. Former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, fresh off a stinging 34,000-vote loss, vowed to “flip Florida blue” by registering or “re-engaging” 1 million voters, including 200,000 new Democrats added by the Florida Democratic Party.

But those initiatives fell well short of their goals. And with seven weeks until mail ballots go out in the Nov. 3 election between presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, Florida Republicans are closer to parity in voter registration than they’ve been in decades — a dynamic that may portend yet another hard-fought, narrowly decided presidential election.

“We won the voter registration war,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters said last week.

Voter registration — the grunt work of politics — sets the foundation for campaign season. For Florida Democrats, who historically have had a harder time turning out their voters than Republicans, it’s even more crucial.

When former President Barack Obama first won Florida in 2008, he entered the final months of the campaign with an advantage of more than 500,000 registered Democratic voters. That lead has steadily dwindled, dropping to about 259,000 in 2016, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida by 112,000 votes.

New data posted online Wednesday by the Florida Division of Elections showed that, as of July 20, when books closed on eligible voters for the upcoming Aug. 18 primary, Democrats led Republicans in the state by 240,423 people — about 5,000 fewer than at the same point in 2018.

There are also now 3,622,236 voters registered without party affiliation, an increase of more than 700,000 independents since the summer of 2016. Another wild card: requests for mail ballots have nearly doubled over the last four years to 4.1 million, with most of that growth on the Democratic side.

“It’s all going to come down to who gets out the vote. That’s the bottom line,” said Millie Raphael, the co-founder of Bring it Home Florida, a non-profit organization involved in Gillum’s effort. “We’ve always been a state that goes to the margins, and that’s exactly where we are today.”

Democrats have hoped to avoid another nail-biter, and only months ago said they were on track to meet their goals. In late February state party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo called reporters to a drab union hall next to Miami International Airport to crow about registering Florida’s 5 millionth Democrat.

“If we stay on our current trajectory, the party alone will collect 200,000 voter registrations by the launch of the general election” in August, Rizzo said, “compared to fewer than 20,000 voters registered by the party in advance of the 2018 election.”

It’s now August, and the numbers are in. They’re not pretty.

Ryan Hurst, the new executive director for Forward Florida Action, said the organization’s partners submitted 265,752 voter registration forms to the Florida Division of Elections. That number includes the 89,000 voters the Florida Democratic Party says it registered.

Though Democrats failed to hit even 50 percent of their goal, the party insists its efforts have been successful in part because it has nearly doubled the number of mail voters in the party.

“Florida Democrats are proud of the work we’ve done to register nearly 90,000 voters and build a huge vote by mail advantage over Republicans,” said party spokeswoman Frances Swanson.

Voter registration numbers in Florida aren’t static, and can be affected by a number of variables. Democrats have contended that regular off-year purges in which hundreds of thousands of inactive voters are stripped of their registration have disproportionately hurt their numbers. And thousands of Democrats have renounced their party affiliation since last year.

Nor were Democrats the only focus of Gillum’s effort. Though he discussed his project in terms of winning Florida for Democrats, the plan also included a significant non-partisan voter registration effort, with the idea that independent voters would cast ballots for Democrats. Additionally, there was an “engage” component in the 1 million number. Raphael, of Bring It Home Florida, said her group believes it “engaged” half a million voters of all stripes through events.

Republicans, meanwhile, have held their own registration drives. Florida First, a political organization funded by the conservative America First Policies, submitted nearly 50,000 voter registration forms over the last 12 months. Both parties have added about a half-million voters to their rolls since the summer of 2016.

Unforeseen circumstances also contributed to Democrats’ registration difficulties. Hurst said registrations were hurt by a 2019 law by Florida’s Republican-led Legislature limiting the effect of a constitutional amendment restoring former felons’ right to vote. Then in March, the novel coronavirus ruptured efforts to reach voters face-to-face.

“Obviously, no one could anticipate or plan for COVID-19,” said Hurst.

Also in March, almost a year to the day Gillum announced his ambitious voter registration plan at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens, the one-time political rising star announced he would pull back from politics and enter rehab. Police had found him too inebriated to speak in a South Beach hotel room littered with several bags of suspected crystal meth and in the company of an incapacitated man who’d advertised services online as a male escort.

Gillum’s political committee, Forward Florida, has also spent more than $1 million on legal fees since 2018, much of it after he was named in a federal subpoena last summer looking into his 2018 gubernatorial campaign and his political committee. The voter registration organization he founded, Forward Florida Action, is a “dark money” political non-profit that doesn’t disclose its donors.

Hurst downplayed the consequences of losing Gillum, who did not respond to a text message seeking comment.

In order to compensate for the shortfall in anticipated voters, and also to address the coronavirus pandemic, progressive organizations and the Florida Democratic Party have now turned to vote-by-mail, which has been proven to boost turnout.

With mail ballots going out in less than eight weeks, Democrats have built up a mail voter advantage of about 600,000 voters over the Florida GOP, which has used a well-oiled mail ballot machine for years to eke out wins in tight races. Democrats may top 2 million mail ballots requested by November.

“That shows some enthusiasm,” said Josh Geise, the Florida state director for America Votes, an organization that helps coordinate the many progressive groups operating around the country. “Hopefully, if things start to get better here as it relates to the pandemic, we’ll be able to see voter registration [also] pick back up.”

Eligible, unregistered voters in Florida — a group some estimate around 4 million strong — have until Oct. 5 to sign up in time to participate in the presidential election. And data compiled by the Florida Division of Elections shows that, in comparison to previous months, voter registration has picked up again, with a total of 77,000 new voters registered in June.

Hurst, the Forward Florida Action executive director, said his organization has shifted to texting hundreds of thousands of voters it has identified as being eligible to register. “Our goal is to contact all of them before the October book closing,” he said.

But Republicans may have the upper hand. While Democrats have largely avoided in-person campaigning, which can drive voter turn out, Trump’s campaign says it is back to knocking on doors.

“The voter intensity on our side is through the roof. I’m walking door to door across the state and the love this president has is off the charts,” said Gruters, the Republican Party of Florida chairman. “There’s no question that our voters are going to show up.”