Judge fears 25,000 voters won't be eligible for Nov. 8 election

A sign is placed on the grass at a celebration at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on the first day of early voting in Miami-Dade. [Associated Press] 
A sign is placed on the grass at a celebration at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on the first day of early voting in Miami-Dade. [Associated Press] 
Published Oct. 28, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge is demanding an explanation from state officials at a hearing today about a backlog in the number of newly registered voters who haven't been verified in time so they can vote in Florida's election.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker has been tracking the number of unverified applicants, which on Thursday was nearly 25,000 out of 125,000 who registered during a weeklong extension the judge granted after Hurricane Matthew this month.

"It appears that the amount of voters being processed each day has slowed dramatically," Walker wrote in an order late Thursday. "As of now, almost 25,000 voters may or may not have their vote counted in the 2016 general election."

The judge ordered Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, to have his elections division director, Maria Matthews, available to face questions.

Detzner's office said it's working diligently to ensure that all complete voter forms submitted by eligible Floridians are added to the voter rolls, verified and made active. His office said more than 100 employees are working on it.

Late Thursday, the state said 24,518 applications are pending verification. Most of those, nearly 15,000, are described by the state as having insufficient or unverifiable information and notice is being provided to those applicants.

One of five Florida voters has already voted in the Nov. 8 presidential election. Some trends favor Hillary Clinton while others look good for Donald Trump.

Nearly 2.5 million had cast ballots by Thursday, according to the Division of Elections.

Republicans and Democrats account for about 41 percent of votes cast so far with no-party and minor-party voters making up the remaining 18 percent.

Slightly more Republicans than Democrats have voted, but the GOP's turnout advantage is one-half of 1 percentage point — a Florida election, all right.

The Republican advantage in mail ballot returns is much smaller than in previous cycles, and Democrats lead in early voting.

About two-thirds of all votes cast so far in Florida have been by mail and the other third cast at early voting sites.

Seventeen more counties will begin early voting on Saturday, including Pasco, the state's 12th largest in voter registration with about 333,000 voters.

More Democrats than Republicans have received mail ballots, but a higher share of Republicans have returned them (53 percent) than have Democrats (49 percent).

Through Wednesday, more people in Miami-Dade have voted than anywhere else: about 272,000 or 20.2 percent of the county electorate, based on September registration numbers.

If that pace continues, Miami-Dade turnout would match or exceed the state as a whole.

That would be an anomaly and a major advantage for Clinton and the Democrats because Miami-Dade consistently votes Democratic in statewide elections.

But just up the road, a possible cause for concern for Democrats is that turnout in overwhelmingly Democratic Broward is sluggish, at 16.5 percent as of Thursday morning.

In the last presidential election in 2012, statewide turnout was 71.5 percent, but the three South Florida counties trailed that rate from 2 to 5 percentage points.

By late Thursday, reported turnout was 26.9 percent in Pinellas and 22.5 percent in Hillsborough.

Those percentages will keep growing daily and are subject to fluctuations in the days ahead as mail ballots pour in and as early voting hits a peak with "Souls to the Polls" on the 14th and final day, Sunday, Nov. 6.

One positive sign for Trump is that voters in three counties on the state's deep red southwest coast — Collier, Lee and Charlotte — are turning out in droves. As of Thursday, Lee County reported a turnout of 33 percent and the other two weren't far behind.

The first three days of early voting were heavy in many counties with some reporting record turnouts and Democrats maintaining their usual advantage.