Florida Republicans have long embraced vote by mail as a reliable method to turn out their base. And the Republican Party of Florida says it doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.
But as with many things in this unprecedented 2020 election in the age of the coronavirus, voting by mail has suddenly become a controversial and partisan issue. The reason why is the same as nearly everything else in politics these days: President Donald Trump.
The country’s top Republican, who is a Florida resident and has himself voted by mail, has repeatedly attacked expanded use of mail-in ballots in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, he tweeted a threat to withhold federal funding for Michigan for going down the “voter fraud path” of sending absentee voter applications to all registered voters. He’s said voting that way has “tremendous potential for voter fraud.”
But Trump has also made comments that appear to signal a concern that greater access to voting by mail could increase turnout and aid Democrats, who have historically been less likely to vote by mail in Florida and in some other states.
During a March 30 interview on Fox & Friends, Trump referenced a Democrat proposal for a coronavirus stimulus package that included significant money for increasing vote by mail and other election preparation."The things they had in there were crazy," Trump said. “They had ... levels of voting that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Yet it’s far from clear Democrats would benefit if vote by mail was expanded.
Over the last two general elections, in 2016 and 2018, Florida Republicans maintained a solid 55,000 vote edge over Democrats in that method for both elections even as its popularity climbed.
That’s partly because Republicans in particular have championed voting by mail in the Sunshine State, said Joe Gruters, the Republican Party of Florida chairman. It was under a Republican-led Legislature that Florida in 2002 first began allowing any voter who requests a mail ballot to receive one without having to provide a reason.
“In Florida, the Republicans have pretty much dominated (vote by mail) in the last two decades,” Gruters said.
While the coronavirus undoubtedly will change voters’ behavior, it’s difficult determining how.
It’s hard to draw too many lessons from Florida’s March 17 presidential preference primary. The Democratic contest was competitive. The Republican contest was not. Largely because of concerns about the coronavirus, the use of vote by mail surged, climbing to 45 percent of the overall vote. But Democrats did cast 12,000 more mail ballots than Republicans did.
“Democrats now see the advantage” of vote-by-mail in Florida, Gruters said.
Gruters said his party is in alignment with the president in being against an all-mail election, which does not seem likely in Florida. The nonpartisan state association of county supervisors of elections sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis more than a month ago saying it wasn’t feasible for Florida to go that far in 2020.
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Christian Ulvert, a Democratic strategist based in Miami, said Republicans in Florida have been touting their strategy on mail ballots for more than a decade.
“It’s richly ironic that a Republican president is now screaming about a growing vote-by-mail option,” he said.
Ulvert said it’s only been in recent years that Florida Democrats have “taken up the vote-by-mail mantle.” He added that pushes by county elections offices to also move more people to voting by mail could change the balance in how things play out this year.
“It’s government-run, it’s not just campaigns telling people they should vote by mail,” Ulvert said.
Shifting more voters to this balloting method could swing elections, he said.
“You’re getting earlier participation in the electoral process" Ulvert said. “It gives campaigns more time to turn out voters.”
Joshua Kleinfeld, a law professor at Northwestern University, said during a recent web event hosted by Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation that mail votes in Florida probably helped Trump win the state in 2016 and Republican Ron DeSantis win the governor’s race in 2018.
Yet vote by mail does not consistently help one party over another, he said, and it’s not clear that expanding vote by mail will necessarily help Democrats.
“Even if you think expanded voting helps Democrats in general, there’s no saying what it will do in this pandemic,” he said.
What is clear is that Florida’s reliance on vote by mail will likely grow this year. Elections supervisors of both parties say they are promoting it as a safe option amid the pandemic.
The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office, for instance, recently sent a flier promoting mail ballots to all active registered voters without a vote-by-mail request already on file. It included an application for voters to request a mail ballot.
A few days later, the Hillsborough County Republican Party posted a Facebook update saying without explanation that Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer had “violated the oath of his office of impartiality” for sending out those applications.
Jim Waurishuk, chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, said in an interview this week that the post was meant to fall in line with President Trump, “who is against the mail-in voting effort across the country by predominantly states and counties where supervisors of elections are Democrats.”
Waurishuk acknowledged that he himself has regularly voted by mail. And his organization has promoted voter choice, even posting about vote-by-mail on Facebook on May 22 and encouraging people to vote “in the most efficient and expeditious means that suits your abilities.”
But Waurishuk argued that the mailer from the Hillsborough elections office may have made some people believe that voting by mail was the only option. He said his office had received calls from confused or upset voters.
Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County elections office, said the mailer was meant to provide information on the ability to vote by mail.
“I don’t understand how anyone could claim that sending a mailer to all voters is not impartial," Kramer said. “That’s the definition of impartial.”
The mailer did not include information on early or Election Day voting. Kramer said information on those options will be included with sample ballot mailers later. She said her office has not received messages from voters confused that the November election would be mail-only.
The Republican Party of Florida and two national GOP organizations recently asked a federal judge to intervene in a lawsuit brought by several Democrat-leaning organizations to try to force Florida to extend the deadline that mail ballots can be received, to pay return postage for mail ballots and tweak other rules related to mail ballots.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee and other Republican groups filed suit on Sunday to try to stop California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, from sending all voters in his state mail-in ballots for the general election.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that such a move by California would result in a “rigged election,” saying that “mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.” He added that “professionals” will go around telling voters “many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote.”
Twitter added labels to those tweets, saying they contain “potentially misleading information about voting processes.” It said the labels were meant to provide more context about mail-in ballots.
Certainly, the closer the election, the more likely it is that calls about fraud, mismanagement or misconduct with mail voting and other voting methods will be amplified.
“God forbid the election doesn’t come down to a glitch that’s affected mail ballots somewhere,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist professor who studies elections.
Experts say that while fraud is more common with mail ballots than with in-person voting, it’s still uncommon.
Some experts say a larger issue nationwide may be voters whose ballots get rejected due to signature matching issues.
McDonald said he estimates that 1 million people across the country could see their ballots rejected for a variety of reasons as many people vote by mail for the first time and make mistakes.
Gruters, of the Republican Party of Florida, said he sees Florida as an “outlier” compared to other states when it comes to the concerns Trump has voiced about fraud.
“We’re a little different than most states because we’ve gone through some elections where there needs to be some tweaks to the laws to ensure we have a fair and accurate system,” he said.
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