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Florida Republicans close voter registration gap with Democrats

State Republicans say their ground effort has been working toward surpassing Democrats for years. But Democrats are still confident.
Rohn Kahn, 28 registers to vote at the Latinos for Trump booth on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019 in Tampa.
Rohn Kahn, 28 registers to vote at the Latinos for Trump booth on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019 in Tampa. [ "LUIS SANTANA | TIMES" | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 22
Updated Sep. 22

The gap between Florida’s registered Democrats and Republicans, which has been steadily closing nearly every year since 2012, is a few thousand voters away from the GOP pulling ahead for the first time in state history.

Despite two decades of Republican dominance on a statewide level, Democrats in Florida have managed to maintain their edge in the number of registered voters. But that lead is now down to about 24,000, according to data from the Florida Department of State — far from the 558,000-voter-advantage Democrats had nearly a decade ago.

There are about 5.1 million Republicans and just slightly more Democrats listed in state data showing active voters as of Aug. 31. There are about 3.8 million voters registered without party affiliation and about 250,000 who registered with minor parties.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz said that, despite the narrowed gap, he’s feeling good. Part of what motivated him to run the party was the lack of infrastructure Democrats had, he said. Since he’s taken over, the party’s been making an active effort to set up a statewide voter registration system that operates year-round.

Diaz pointed to the 2008 and 2012 boom Democrats had in registered voters, which he attributed to the Florida campaigns of Barack Obama’s successful runs for president and his reelection. But when those campaign officials left, they took their resources with them and the statewide party lost ground.

When it comes to registrations, Diaz said the party can’t rely on national campaigns or on nonpartisan groups, from outside Florida or within, helping with registration.

Diaz said Democrats must engage with voters themselves throughout the year to nurture talent within the party and create trust, something that he concedes they have failed to do in the past by only coming around to ask for votes.

Daniel Smith, the chair of the University of Florida political science department, said he suspects part of the reason the gap narrowed is that inactive voters were removed from the rolls. Diaz pointed to the culling of voter rolls as a reason Democrats lost much of its lead, and said supervisor of elections in bluer counties have completed their process sooner than those in smaller counties.

Smith also said Florida’s new election law has hampered the ability of third-party voter groups, such as Voto Latino or the League of Women Voters, to work effectively. Those groups are one of the main ways young voters and voters of color get registered, he said. The law states that third-party voter groups have an obligation to inform the registrant that their application may not be delivered within two weeks and have to tell the applicant how to register to vote online.

Along with the new restrictions, coronavirus forced those organizations to do their work virtually, hampering in-person efforts at registering students.

“We have a digital divide in this state, and so the idea that voters can easily shift over to an online portal to register to vote is a myth,” Smith said.

Young voters in the state are no longer guaranteed to register as Democrats. Neither are new Hispanic voters, who Smith said are more often registering without a party than they did in 2008 when they favored Democrats.

“That party identifier is very important for the minimal resources the Democratic party has to turn out,” Smith said. “A lot of (no party affiliations) don’t even get messaged about candidates or how to vote.”

Republicans didn’t gain this ground overnight, said the Republican Party of Florida’s executive director, Helen Aguirre Ferré. It’s been an investment over several years, and she thanked Gov. Ron DeSantis for his financial support of the voter registration ground effort.

Ferré, whose family is from Nicaragua, said Democratic messaging has driven voters who may have been apathetic to the GOP. Especially among Hispanic and Latino voters, Ferré said, concerns about government overreach and socialist policies have made them wary of Democrats.

The Republican party has also made strides with religious communities and among women voters, particularly when it comes to groups like Moms for Liberty, which align closely with Republican values, she said.

GOP Chair Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said it’s been policies from DeSantis that have driven like-minded people to move to Florida and given the state party a boost.

“We are going to flip Florida and we’re going to make Florida red permanently,” Gruters said.

But the party won’t be resting on its laurels as it assumes control over one of the few spheres in state politics where Democrats still had an edge.

“In a state like Florida, when you consider that you get 1,000 new residents a day, you really can’t stop,” Ferré said. “You have to keep going and you have to keep engaging.”

William Joel Bravo, the deputy political director for Florida Immigrant Coalition Votes, said to get Latino voters or members of Black immigrant communities to mobilize, there needs to be stronger relationships.

“As we see the gap dwindling between Democrats and Republicans, we understand there is a lack of investment in these communities, and generally on the ground infrastructure when it comes to the Florida Democratic Party,” he said.

Bravo said the one-size-fits-all approach to reaching Latino voters has not worked in Florida because of the diversity within the state. He said along with investing in year-round registration, Democrats need to invest in education to better understand the nuances of different voters in these groups.

Despite roadblocks, voter registration groups are still registering voters. Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, founded People Power for Florida, a political action committee.

Eskamani said that organizing is her “bread and butter.” She’s unpaid, but the two organizing directors and seven fellows are paid. They run up against apathetic voters, those who have had their trust in the system eroded and Florida’s volatile weather conditions. And the money isn’t flowing in their direction, Eskamani said.

Their work isn’t solely registering voters — it’s also keeping them on the rolls. This past week the group launched efforts to reach voters flagged as inactive.

“It’s not only about registering voters, it’s about building efficacy,” Eskamani said. “And that’s community building, so it doesn’t happen overnight.”

But Republicans remain confident about the future. Former state GOP chair Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said the last few election cycles have shown the state trending more toward Republicans.

“We’re organized and, quite frankly, the Florida Democrats have a history of being disorganized,” Ingoglia said. “That’s just the brutal honest truth.”