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Florida Republicans surge ahead with in-person early voting

Early voting has gone relatively smoothly so far in Tampa Bay, although there have been some issues. Voters waited in line for hours Friday morning at Bloomingdale Regional Public Library in Hillsborough County after printer problems.

Florida Republicans' preference for in-person voting this election is becoming more apparent after only four days of early voting.

Through Thursday, more than 640,000 Republicans statewide had cast ballots in person, according to data from the Florida Division of Elections. That’s 140,000 more in-person votes than Democrats have cast.

Democrats hold a 570,000-vote advantage in returned mail ballots so far, with 1.61 million to Republicans' 1.04 million. At this point, Democrats still hold a commanding lead in the total number of votes cast, although that lead is likely to shrink considerably as Nov. 3 nears.

The split in party preference for in-person vs. vote-by-mail ballots was expected, particularly given rhetoric by President Donald Trump and others that undermined confidence in mail ballots. Trump has said that Florida’s vote-by-mail system is “safe and secure," but his continuous assertions on mail ballots as being ripe for widespread fraud, absent of evidence, has undoubtedly affected many of his supporters.

Concerns about the efficacy of the U.S. Postal Service or worries that their ballot may not be counted due to a signature issue or other problem has led some voters to switch to in-person voting this year. (Floridians have a chance to “cure” problems with their mail ballots if they are flagged for things like a missing or mismatched signature.)

On Wednesday, the Republican Party of Florida tweeted a video of Gov. Ron DeSantis urging Republicans to vote early, saying that they can do so “safely and securely in person at an official early voting site.”

All counties will have in-person voting available by Saturday. Early voting continues through Oct. 31 in Pasco, Citrus and Hernando, and through Nov. 1 in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk.

Overall, early voting appears to be going relatively smoothly around Tampa Bay, although there have been some issues.

On Friday morning, an internet outage at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office caused slowdowns at some early voting sites as elections workers had to adjust some processes and deal with problems printing ballots, said spokeswoman Gerri Kramer.

At the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library in Valrico, voters reported waiting for more than two hours to vote Friday morning, with the line not moving at some points as elections employees worked to fix ballot printers. Dozens gave up and left.

As of about 11 a.m., the line appeared to be moving, although it was still long as workers tried to get through the backlog of voters. Voters who stayed in line appeared to be in good spirits, with the weather a bit clearer than in some recent days.

Melissa Parker, 49, and her son, Parker Kimbleton, 19, got in line at 9:10 a.m. and made it through voting a couple of hours later.

“We have water. We have nice weather,” said Parker, a Democrat. She said she wasn’t upset by the wait. She just wanted to make sure she could vote.

Odalys Rondon, 55, expressed similar sentiments. “I’m happy to vote. This is an historical election,” said Rondon, a Republican. She added that she can wait all day if needed.

Voters wait in a long line at the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library in Valrico on Friday morning after problems with ballot printers slowed down early voting.
Voters wait in a long line at the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library in Valrico on Friday morning after problems with ballot printers slowed down early voting. [ Kristen Hare/Special to the Times ]

Meanwhile, In Pinellas County, the appearance of armed security guards Wednesday evening outside the downtown St. Petersburg early voting site raised concerns about potential voter intimidation. It’s not clear why the two security guards were out by the tent set up by supporters of Trump, and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the guards were not doing anything improper. But he said Thursday he would assign uniformed officers outside early voting sites for the remainder of early voting.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff will station deputies outside early voting sites

Voters can still request mail ballots, and state data shows that tens of thousands of voters have been doing so in recent days. Saturday is the deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot by mail. After that, voters can pick up vote-by-mail ballots at their county elections offices.

The deadline for mail ballots to be returned to elections offices is 7 p.m. Nov. 3.

Overall, nearly 4.8 million people statewide have cast ballots in the 2020 general election as of Friday morning. Experts are anticipating high turnout, given the level of enthusiasm in the presidential race between Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Given the shifts in voting patterns, it’s too early to say how voting at polling places on Nov. 3 may look. Experts project it will skew more Republican and elections officials are preparing for a busy day.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

VOTER GUIDE: Access the Tampa Bay Times’ Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on early voting locations, 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.

WHY A FLORIDA CITY’S BLACK VOTERS BEAT NATIONAL AVERAGES: Turnout is 10 percent over the national average. That’s been true for generations. The story of Chester James Sr. helps explain why.

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

SIGN UP FOR ELECTION TEXT MESSAGES: Get voting information, news updates and ask political editor Steve Contorno questions about the candidates and issues, directly through your phone.

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