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Florida Republicans close registration gap with Democrats to historically narrow margin

More than 14.4 million active registered voters are eligible for the 2020 general election.

Florida’s Republicans have narrowed the voter registration gap behind Democrats to historically close levels in the final tally of voters before the Nov. 3 election.

Democrats hold only a 134,000-voter lead over Republicans in the nation’s largest swing state, according to a Thursday report from the Florida Department of State that shows how many active registered voters registered in time to participate in the 2020 general election. Four years ago, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 113,000 votes, Democrats held a 327,000-voter edge.

There are more than 14.4 million active registered voters in Florida.

Democrats in 1980 boasted twice as many registered voters than Republicans, but the gap between the two parties has steadily closed. Democrats saw a boost in their registrations during the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, but Republicans have regained that ground in subsequent years.

Florida Democrats had hoped to reverse the trend in 2020. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum at one point aimed to register or “re-engage” 1 million voters.

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

Then came the coronavirus, which significantly altered voter registration efforts. New voter registrations plummeted in the spring as many Floridians began avoiding public spaces and local driver’s license locations — where a significant proportion of new voters register — and other government offices closed to the public. Voter registration efforts were impeded, too, without big events and with door-to-door and other in-person efforts stymied.

Related: As COVID-19 forces campaigns to go digital, Florida Democrats lag behind GOP

After the pandemic hit, volunteers with Forward Florida Action, which was founded by Gillum, texted more than 500,000 potential voters as part of a digital voter registration program and invested in enrolling voters in vote-by-mail, said executive director Ryan Hurst.

“While Democrats were preparing our voters to vote safely by mail in the pandemic and building up an 800,000 vote-by-mail request advantage, the Republicans continued to put the public at risk by conducting in-person voter registration activities and simultaneously discouraging their voters from voting by mail,” Hurst said. “We are organizing and fighting for every vote, and believe the momentum and enthusiasm are on our side.”

Republicans crowed Thursday that their strategy would lead to victories on Nov. 3

“Today’s voter registration numbers are proof of Florida’s enthusiasm for President (Donald) Trump and Republicans,” Emma Vaughn, Florida press secretary for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “Democrats just can’t compete with that type of passion and Trump Victory’s superior ground game and infrastructure.”

Florida Democrats, meanwhile, have been talking up Democrats' early turnout numbers in returned vote-by-mail ballots this election cycle.

Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, tweeted Thursday that more than 1 million Democrats have already voted in Florida. That’s well ahead of the 620,000 Republicans ballots returned and a switch from previous years, when Republicans have typically held vote-by-mail advantages.

Experts have cautioned against reading too much into early voting returns, as it’s possible that large numbers of voters could come out on Election Day or for in-person early voting.

According to the data released Thursday, Republicans added a net total of nearly 619,000 active registered Republicans compared with 2016, while Democrats added nearly 426,000.

No-party-affiliated voters made the largest jump in voter registrations compared with 2016, with a net gain of 663,000 voters, an increase of about 21 percent.

Compared with 2016, Democrats made voter registration gains in some urban counties, including Broward and Orange. Several counties that in 2016 held Democratic voter registration advantages now have more Republican voters than Democrats, including fast-growing Volusia and Polk counties. No county flipped the other way.

Times Political Editor Steve Contorno contributed to this report.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

VOTER GUIDE IS COMING SOON: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18, with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

AMENDMENTS: State constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained.

FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

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