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Florida groups scramble to register voters amid COVID-19

Democratic activists are scaling back voter registration plans and focusing more on mail voting. Republicans are leaning on a massive collection of voter data to help drive a new focus on digital outreach
Taira Rodriguez, a canvasser for UnidosUS, knocks on doors at a Kendall apartment building on Friday, January 17, 2020.
Taira Rodriguez, a canvasser for UnidosUS, knocks on doors at a Kendall apartment building on Friday, January 17, 2020. [ LAUTARO GRINSPAN | Miami Herald ]
Published Mar. 27, 2020

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If this were a normal election year, voter registration organizations in Florida would be deploying an army of field volunteers and organizers to supermarkets and churches now. They’d be touting ambitious registration goals, knocking on a record number of doors and targeting overlooked voters.

But as the number of cases and deaths related to COVID-19 continue to swell in the nation’s most populous battleground state, “Get Out The Vote!” groups are scrapping old plans and scrambling to address the challenges posed by a society in near-lockdown.

Suddenly unable to reach voters on their doorsteps, Democratic activists are scaling back voter registration plans and focusing more on mail voting. Republicans are leaning on a massive collection of voter data to help drive a new focus on digital outreach. And, for the non-profit voter registration organizations that do the bulk of the heavy lifting in Florida, the consequences of the crisis are still setting in.

“This is going to change the industry of non-profit advocacy forever,” said Frederick Vélez III, national director of civic engagement for the Hispanic Federation.

Heading into 2020, Democrats and Republicans alike ramped up efforts to register new voters ahead of the November election. Democrats, in particular, had emphasized the need to rebuild their numerical advantage over Republicans after Democrats saw razor-thin losses in races for governor and U.S. Senate in 2018.

That goal was rolled out with a bang just about one year ago when losing gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum announced an effort to register or “reengage” 1 million new voters in the state.

But now Gillum is gone from the political scene, enveloped by scandal. And the coronavirus has slammed the breaks on a massive, in-person ground operation that saw the Florida Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee spending millions of dollars on field organizers to reach new and overlooked voters.

“Last week was scary,” said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa, who has pulled staffers off the ground and refocused efforts on digital outreach. “It was just upending our program completely and having to do a 180-degree pivot, that was nerve racking.”

Like many other groups, the party is now focusing less on voter registration and more on mail voting.

“We’ve altered our efforts,” he said. “Every organization worth its salt is doing that.”

Peñalosa said that before the coronavirus outbreak, the party’s goal was to boost turnout this November over 2016 by two percentage points, equal to 307,000 additional votes cast by Democrats. He said they planned to do that by adding 200,000 new Democrats to the voter rolls and drawing out 107,000 previously registered but inactive voters by registering them to vote by mail.

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Now, the math has shifted. The party is expecting to register about 70,000 fewer new voters, which they plan to compensate for by boosting mail ballot turnout among unlikely voters. He said they’ll do that through text messages, social media ads and phone calls to people moving into the state and returning to the voting rolls after completing felony sentences.

The campaign to reelect President Donald Trump has made similar changes as workers continue to recruit Florida volunteers, who are now being trained digitally, according to the Republican Party of Florida. Though the party said it doesn’t discuss projections publicly, Trump Victory volunteers announced they had made nearly 140,000 phone calls earlier this week in Florida alone.

“As you know our field staffers serve as RPOF’s boots on the ground team. However, as we are navigating through truly unprecedented times, with much changing on a daily basis, we have had to be flexible and creative,” RPOF spokesperson Alia Faraj-Johnson said in a statement.

During the primary on March 17, Florida organizers had a taste of what an election could look like during the coronavirus pandemic: poll workers wearing gloves, voters pumping hand sanitizer and a decrease in the number of voters showing up in person.

Now, many independent political groups — which do the bulk of the voter registration in the state — are beginning to plan for a worst-case scenario in which curfews and shutdowns could do away with early voting and door-knocking through the August 18 primary and the November 3 general election.

For now, it’s unclear when the coronavirus pandemic will end and allow campaigns to return to person-to-person interaction.

The Hispanic Federation, which is also running a campaign to increase Latino participation in the Census 2020, has drafted a whole new plan to register voters online in the past several weeks, but does not expect to change its goal of registering 41,000 new voters in Florida and getting 500,000 Hispanics in Florida to actually cast ballots in November.

Other organizations have decided to make more significant cuts to their registration programs this year

“What we decided to do was put a hold on voter registration for the time being,” said Justin Atkins, Florida state director for NextGen Florida, an outreach group that focuses on turning out young voters, ages 18 to 35.

“We’re having conversations about what that ... looks like moving forward,” he added.

The group is now focusing on a robust vote-by-mail effort to make voting accessible for young people in the possible absence of traditional in-person voting and reaching out to young voters online.

“We realize that in a time like this, vote-by-mail is so important... something that we thought would be antiquated with millennials and Gen Z-ers, but is actually something they’re receptive to and willing to do,” Atkins said.

Atkins said NextGen had reached 12,000 registrations before the onset of the pandemic, just over half of its 20,000 registration goal. The group also did away with plans to reach another 10% of its registration goal during the summer months and the rest in the fall before the October 5 general election deadline to register voters.

For Forward Florida Action, the ambitious voter registration organization founded by Gillum, the challenges in pushing registration during the pandemic are exacerbated by his recent decision to leave public life. Earlier this month, Gillum announced he was entering a rehab program for alcohol abuse, days after he was found in a Miami Beach hotel room in an incident that involved suspected crystal meth.

“I will say, of course, Andrew Gillum has stepped down from all public facing roles, so that will impact our organization and the process of figuring out exactly what that means,” said Rosy Gonzalez Speers, executive director of Forward Florida. “I don’t know what that means in terms of a hard number, but what I do know is that organizations right now are actively trying to figure that out.”

Gonzalez Speers added that the group is planning to follow up by text and phone with a list of about 2,000 potential voters who had filled out the group’sr online registration tool. Early efforts have also given Forward Florida an advantage with Florida voters, she believes.

“I think last year, Andrew’s kind of bold challenge he put out there of registering and reengaging a million people was really kind of a call ... that Florida is in play in 2020,” Gonzalez Speers said. “More resources have come to the state earlier than ever before for Democrats to do direct voter registration engagement work.”

Organizers are clear-eyed about the fact that while switching to digital efforts will help “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infection, the online ways of reaching people are not perfect replacements for face-to-face interactions. While the focus turns to vote-by-mail ballots, which some experts say are more likely to be rejected if you’re a young voter or a person of color, some groups also worry a digital divide can keep black and Hispanics out of the efforts.

New Florida Majority, one of the state advocacy groups that unsuccessfully sued the state to extend the vote-by-mail request deadline for the March 17 primary, spent the days ahead of the primary handing out flyers to raise awareness on how to stay safe from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority, said she believes the early, in-person efforts will pay off.

“I really think that if we want communities to show up in elections, we need to show up for them when they need it most,” she said.

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