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Florida Democrats launch $2.5 million effort to close voter registration gap

The effort is a partnership between the state party, the Senate and House caucuses and a secretive donor group.
Voters prepare to cast ballots at Amalie Arena in Tampa in October 2020. On Monday, Democrats announced a $2.5 million push to register more voters.
Voters prepare to cast ballots at Amalie Arena in Tampa in October 2020. On Monday, Democrats announced a $2.5 million push to register more voters. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 7, 2022|Updated Feb. 7, 2022

Florida Democrats announced a new effort to try to bring more voters into the fold as they trail Republicans in the number of registered voters for the first time in state history.

Democrats will spend $2.5 million as an “initial investment” to register more Democratic voters, said party chairperson Manny Diaz at a Monday news conference held on Zoom. The push is being coordinated by the party alongside the Democratic caucuses in the state House and Senate, as well as a secretive group of donors called the Florida Alliance, which speakers at the announcement billed as a historic partnership. Democratic Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is also involved and will help raise money.

“My 2020 campaign is living proof that Democrats can win and can lead with great success when everyone puts in the work,” said Levine Cava, even though her race was a nonpartisan election.

The registration push comes at a highly critical time for Democrats, who have suffered blow after blow in the nation’s largest purple state that still has been controlled by Republicans for the past two decades. After the 2020 election, in which former President Donald Trump won the state by 3.4 percentage points, a margin that is huge by Florida standards, observers have wondered if the Sunshine State has become more firmly red.

Related: Republicans make Florida history, pass Democrats in voter registrations

Democrats have also lost ground in the state Senate, eroding even their ability to block votes that require a supermajority. Three key 2020 state Senate races were marked by a “ghost” candidate scheme where dark-money groups paid for ads promoting third-party candidates in an apparent effort to siphon Democratic votes. The closest race, in Miami, is now part of a criminal investigation.

“We have let our guard down, especially in off years, and the other side has eaten away at our margins,” Diaz said. “That’s not going to happen anymore.”

The pitch to voters will be a back-to-basics approach, the party leaders said, where they will focus on issues like affordable housing, health care, the skyrocketing cost of homeowners’ insurance, and education, which they said are being neglected by the GOP’s culture wars.

“While Republicans cater to special interests, right-wing social crusaders and big corporations, Democrats are fighting for the people,” said Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation, the Senate minority leader. “The future of Florida is at stake.”

The Republican Party of Florida pounced on the announcement, saying the Democrats are “spending so heavily on voter registration to make up for their historic lack of enthusiasm caused by bad leadership and an even worse agenda.” A filing by the Republican Party of Florida showed that it spent $1.5 million on voter registration in the second half of 2021.

The Democratic party leaders declined to say in which areas of the state they plan to focus their registration efforts, other than to say there are five target markets, nor did they provide their target number of new voters. Democratic strategist Christian Ulvert, who spoke during the call, said they have an “ambitious goal” of “six-figure registration numbers by October,” and mentioned rural and Hispanic voters as two demographics where Democrats can make inroads.

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Speakers also mentioned engaging with inactive voters who are on track to be removed from the rolls if they miss two more election cycles or fail to update their voter records.

Ulvert emphasized the news of the partnership, saying it would transform Democrats’ strategy so it’s comprehensive rather than piecemeal.

“From 2006 forward ... I can’t point to a moment where we’ve had a joint press conference call with the party, with caucus leaders, with local leaders and with a key donor at the table, to say A: This is a must, B: This is going to happen and C: This is going to get funded,” he said.

The donor group involved in the partnership is called the Florida Alliance, which has backed Democratic candidates in the past. The group does not disclose its members and it uses 501(c)(4) dark-money nonprofits to shift funds.

When asked about using this type of funding for voter registration after Democrats’ criticism of the vote-siphoning scheme, Raymond Paultre, executive director of The Florida Alliance, said it’s important not to conflate the two.

“There’s a big difference between a (c)(4) giving a percentage of their resources to politically allowed engagement and using those (c)(4)s to prop up third-party candidates, and I think the media should take a moment to probably make that clear,” he said.

Paultre also said some members of the Florida Alliance will donate directly to the Florida Democratic Party, which would mean their donations would be public. But “how different members give is up to them,” he added.

Another hurdle the Democrats will face is that increasing voter registration alone won’t address the so-far sparse field of statewide Democratic candidates to vote for, aside from the governor’s race. No Democrat has registered yet to run for chief financial officer, and the two who have registered to run for attorney general or commissioner of agriculture have received less than $5,000 combined in contributions to their official campaign accounts.

But Diaz, the party chair, hinted at more candidates to come.

“I have had numerous conversations with people considering a statewide run,” he said. “For a variety of reasons, they’re waiting on timing, but there’s interest there and we hope to have a good group of candidates running.”