1. Florida Politics

Debate over early voting won't end after 2012

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Published Nov. 6, 2012

Voters in Miami-Dade County waited up to seven hours to cast their ballots before early voting ended around 1 a.m. Sunday.

This is democracy?

You bet, say Republican state legislators, defending their decision to reduce the number of early voting days from 14 to eight.

"To say it's about the number of days is erroneous," says Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, author of the 2011 law that changed Florida's elections process. "If you know how many people are coming, you plan for them."

A month of voting by mail in Florida plus eight days of early voting is plenty of time, Republicans say.

House Speaker-Designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, says the Democrats' criticism of long lines at early voting sites is "blown out of proportion."

"For anyone to say that this process has been problematic or that people have had their rights infringed upon is simply not true," Weatherford said.

Democrats and voter advocacy groups accuse the Republicans of trying to suppress the vote by curtailing early voting days.

"This is something that is certainly providing less access to Floridians," said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's Law School.

The final numbers speak for themselves.

In Florida, a total of 2,411,698 people voted early this election, compared to 2,661,672 four years ago. That's a decline of 249,974 early voters or 9.4 percent.

If you're a Democrat, you call this voter suppression.

If you're a Republican, you call it an enthusiasm gap in President Barack Obama's campaign.

Nowhere is the decline in early voting more glaring than in Miami-Dade, where it dropped by about 28 percent, from 326,000 early voters in 2008 to 236,000 this time.

Is that evidence of voter suppression, or voter apathy?

Or maybe some of both?

By way of comparison, early voting increased in the state's biggest swing county, Hillsborough, from 146,558 in 2008 to 166,937 in 2012.

That's an increase of 14 percent.

Democrats continue to fret about the tendency of their rank-and-file members in South Florida to stay home on Election Day — and they have reason for concern.

In 2008, the turnout was 75.2 percent statewide but 70.2 percent in Miami-Dade, a full 5 percentage points lower. One of every three Democrats in Florida lives in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Obama cruised to victory in Miami-Dade four years ago with 58 percent of the vote.

Driving up the Democratic turnout this time is why the president's final Florida campaign stop on Sunday was in Hollywood, smack in the middle of the Gold Coast.

Remember, too, that early voting in Florida has been more popular among Democrats than Republicans, and especially among African-Americans, since it began in 2004.

The election will end Tuesday night, but the debate over early voting may last forever.