TALLAHASSEE — Democrats have opened up a 302,000-voter advantage over Republicans in vote-by-mail enrollment, an edge that could pay big dividends in President Donald Trump’s newly adopted must-win state.
Five months before Election Day, more than 1.46 million Democrats have signed up to vote by mail compared to 1.16 million Republicans, according to an analysis of state Division of Election data released Friday. By comparison, in 2016, Democrats held an advantage of about 8,800 in vote-by-mail enrollment.
The reason for the success is twofold. Democrats have put heightened emphasis on getting more people to cast ballots from home, an effort that preceded the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. And Trump has demonized this type of voting so much that Republicans, who once dominated mail-in ballots, are souring on it.
Florida’s vote-by-mail enrollment gap is among a number of warning signs for Trump, who carried the state by fewer than 113,000 votes, or 1.19 percentage points, four years ago.
Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, has led in every public poll in the state over the past two months by an average of 4.6 points, similar to Hillary Clinton’s margin over Trump in 2016 during the same period. Democrats have a 2-point lead over Republicans in the number of registered voters as of April 30, state data show.
Juan Peñalosa, executive director for the Florida Democratic Party, called the vote-by-mail numbers “striking.” In a memo, he pointed out their importance in a state where elections often are won in the margins.
Peñalosa marveled at Trump’s “insane” success in dampening GOP enthusiasm for mail-in voting because it has worked so well for Florida Republicans.
“They’re going to have to turn out more people — maybe 300,000 more voters — on Election Day,” Peñalosa said in an interview. “They haven’t had to turn out that many more voters in one day in more than a decade that I’ve been in Florida.”
Any registered voter in Florida can request a mail-in ballot up until 10 days before an election, a policy put in place nearly 20 years ago in the wake of the chaotic 2000 presidential recount.
Signing up for a mail-in ballot doesn’t guarantee that a voter will send it in. But more than 90 percent of Republicans who asked for a ballot in 2016 returned it, compared to 87 percent for Democrats, according to GOP pollster Ryan Tyson.
There has been a heightened interest in vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic as Democrats have backed it as an alternative to standing in line at polling places. A Democratic-aligned super PAC and other left-leaning groups have filed a federal lawsuit demanding the state make it easier to vote by mail.
With 29 electoral votes at stake in Florida and the presidential battle spreading into states once considered GOP leaning, Trump needs to hold onto Florida in order to win a second term. He has increasingly railed against vote-by-mail, calling it rife with fraud. But while voter fraud does occur, it is exceedingly rare and has never been shown to be so big as to sway a statewide or nationwide election.
“My biggest risk in this election is mail-in voting,” Trump told POLITICO in an interview last week. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits, I think — I think it puts the election at risk.”
Trump, his White House spokesperson and his Commerce secretary have cast mail-in votes in Florida.
Of the new people Democrats have enrolled to vote by mail, about a third are classified as sporadic or inactive voters, only about 25 percent of whom can be expected to turn out at the polls, Peñalosa wrote in his June 23 memo. But 40 percent of these infrequent voters cast ballots in 2018 when they signed up to vote by mail.
Trump Victory spokesperson Emma Vaughn said the gap in mail-in ballots doesn’t mean Democrats have an advantage. The Trump campaign has more than 155 staffers in Florida and has reached 8.5 million voters in one form or another.
“Republicans never left the Sunshine State after 2016,” Vaughn said in a written statement, and the president’s agenda “coupled with our unmatched, data-driven ground game, will ensure another victory for President Trump and Republicans up and down the ballot come November.”
But Trump’s rhetoric appears to be dampening Republican enthusiasm for voting by mail.
In Florida, the number of Republicans signed up to cast vote-by-mail ballots has declined by 186,000 since 2018, while Democrats have increased their numbers by 69,000, according to the latest state data. It’s a stark turnaround for a party that famously won a 1988 U.S. Senate race thanks to mailed-in ballots.
The margin has increased since the March 17 presidential primary, when Democrats had an advantage in of 47,000 people enrolled to vote by mail.
Trump’s close ally, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has not responded to requests that mail-in ballot request forms be mailed statewide to every voter. The Florida Democratic Party has petitioned local officials to take the initiative and 18 counties have ramped up plans to do so. Many of them are large and mid-sized counties where Democrats tend to live.
It’s not just Florida where the vote-by-mail gap has widened between the two parties.
In swing-state Michigan, Republicans this month burned mail-in ballot signup forms in protest. In Texas, Rice University political science professor Bob Stein said support for mail-in voting dropped in real time among Republican voters in Harris County as he conducted a survey that gauged attitudes about voting methods while Trump criticized vote-by-mail.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats cast a disproportionate number of mail-in ballots during a June 2 primary. Wisconsin Democrats have focused more on mail-in voting after its disaster of a primary, as have Georgia Democrats following that state’s problematic June 9 primary.
The partisan divide was laid bare in a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll of voters nationwide that showed Republicans were less concerned than Democrats about voting in person during a pandemic but were more concerned about election security due to mail-in ballots.
In Florida, a June poll from Tyson showed a growing number of Republican voters plan to vote in person on Election Day while Democrats say they plan to cast their ballots by mail.
Tyson is skeptical that the 300,000 vote-by-mail gap is a significant advantage for Democrats and predicted that those who have voted by mail in the past will do so again. He said Republicans have increasingly taken advantage of in-person early voting before Election Day.
Democrats need to enroll people because the “inconvenient fact” is that their voters are becoming less willing to vote in person, he said, and the party is going to have to work to get these new voters to actually turn in ballots.
“I don’t think it tells us anything,” Tyson said.