Florida Democrats fall behind in early voting, lag with mail-in ballots

ORLANDO, Fla. — Republicans have surpassed Democrats in early voting so far in Florida and have cut into their advantage using main-in ballots, an ominous sign for the party’s candidates in their uphill battle to unseat Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio on Nov. 8.

“In Florida, the Democrats are in trouble,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

“Historically, Democrats lead in the early vote,” he said. “And right now, when you combine both the in-person and the mail ballots, registered Democrats are trailing the Republicans by about 30,000 ballots that have been returned. So that should be very concerning to them.”

Republicans typically turn out strongly on Election Day. So Democrats need to rack up big numbers beforehand, especially since the GOP surpassed Democrats in voter registration for the first time last year.

For this election, Republicans have surged even farther ahead. The GOP has 5.26 million registered voters to 4.97 million for the Democrats, a number that dipped below 5 million following the 2020 election.

As of Friday, five days into early voting, 267,111 Republicans have cast ballots in person at early voting stations compared with 149,265 Democrats. Another 82,000 independent and third party voters also voted early.

Democrats do have the advantage in mail-in voting, with 726,677 Democrats having returned their ballots as of Friday compared with 635,344 Republicans. Another 333,000 independents and third-party members have also voted by mail.

But even those numbers lag where Democrats should be, McDonald said.

“Democrats started off with an advantage of about 450,000 mail ballot requests that were held over from the 2018 and 2020 elections,” he said. “But the Democrats are simply not returning their ballots at the same rate the Republicans are. … They’re squandering that lead.”

It was during the 2020 election when the usual patterns of partisan voting in Florida began to change.

Florida had been a national leader in allowing “no excuse” mail-in voting without the need to prove that they would be absent on Election Day or for other reasons, a change spearheaded by Republicans in Tallahassee.

While Republicans used to vote by mail at a bigger rate than Democrats, especially older voters, COVID-19 pandemic concerns in 2020 led more Democrats to cast ballots by mail instead

False claims of fraud by President Donald Trump led more Republicans to bypass voting by mail to instead cast their votes in person, either early or on Election Day.

So far this year, Democrats lead in mail-in voting in heavily Democratic Orange and Osceola counties, but so far have just a slim lead in key Seminole, a previously solid GOP county that voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum in 2018.

Democrats also trail in early voting in Osceola and Seminole counties and have just a slight lead in Orange County. Republicans lead in both categories in Lake County.

There’s still a week of early voting yet to come, McDonald said, and Democrats can still shore up their early numbers before Election Day for statewide candidates such as former U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. Val Demings, running for governor and U.S. Senate, but also important races for Congress and the Legislature.

“Next week, we’re going to start seeing more younger people voting,” he said. “That’s just a typical pattern that we’ve seen in past elections. … But if we go into Election Day with registered Democrats trailing registered Republicans in the early vote, I will be very certain that DeSantis and Rubio will be winners.”

McDonald also warned Democrats of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” if reports of low turnout on their side leads their voters to depress their turnout even further.

“They (might) just assume, ‘Well, my vote doesn’t matter. So I’m not going to participate,’” he said. “... Democrats opting at least up to this point not to vote is basically conceding that the Republicans will control the (Florida) government and potentially help them control the U.S. House of Representatives,” he said.

Gregory Koger, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, said there is an institutionalized Republican advantage that Democrats are still struggling to overcome.

“Not just the voter registration numbers, but what’s behind it — the better funding and organization of the Florida Republican Party over the last few years,” Koger said.

The way that Florida Democrats break the cycle, he said, is to do better than expected in a major race in an attempt to show Florida is still a swing state. The same kind of close loss that party candidates suffered from 2010 to 2018 would this time be seen as Florida still being a winnable state in the future.

“(Democrat) Beto O’Rourke exceeded expectations in 2018 in the Texas Senate race, which then made Texas a more viable place to compete in the 2020 presidential election, and now he’s trying again (for governor),” Koger said. “So one way out of that cycle is to have a good candidate who exceeds expectations.”

Otherwise, he said, “there’ll be some real soul-searching about what they need to do going forward.”