Despite Controversy, Early Voting Boosts Obama in Florida

A look at the numbers begs the question: Did Republicans really succeed in blunting Democrats' early advantage?

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If you’re in Florida, duck, because the voting lawsuits started flying over the weekend, this time to get Republican Governor Rick Scott to extend early voting.

Around the Sunshine State, cable-news cameras have been capturing frustrated early voters standing in lines that look longer than the exodus scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments. That’s put more scrutiny on Tea Partyer Scott and Florida’s GOP-led legislature, which cut the state’s number of early-voting days from 14 in 2008 — when Barack Obama won Florida, helped by robust early balloting by Democrats — to just eight in 2012, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney has to wrest Florida’s enormous cache of 29 electoral votes from Obama if he’s to have any real chance of winning the White House.

Let’s be frank about one thing: Scott and the Florida GOP can hand us all the disingenuous reasons they want for reducing early-voting days, including their favorite canard: cracking down on voter fraud. But their real impetus was to reduce Democratic turnout, because Democrats tend to do more early voting than Republicans — and because they gave Obama a 9-point lead among early in-person voters in 2008. Yet now that early in-person voting has ended in Florida as of Saturday, with absentee ballots still coming in by mail or by hand, a look at the numbers begs this question: Did Scott and the Florida GOP really succeed? And the answer seems to be: not all that much.

One of the more levelheaded pundits crunching Florida’s early-voting numbers is Paul Flemming, state editor for the Tallahassee Democrat. His political blog notes that while more than 2.6 million early in-person votes were cast in Florida in the 2008 presidential election (when then Republican Governor Charlie Crist extended early-voting hours), 2.4 million were cast this year, a 9.4% drop. Granted, that’s almost a tenth, which could turn out to be an epic difference, given that some polls still show Obama and Romney in a statistical tie in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state. But Flemming also notes that Democratic voters, who outnumbered Republicans 46% to 36% in early in-person voting this year, seem to have widened their 2008 lead.

What’s more, Flemming points out that while Scott and the GOP legislature cut the number of early-voting days, the number of early-voting hours, 96, remained the same as in 2008. As a result, Flemming wonders how much of the 9.4% drop can be attributed to the fact that Obama’s 2012 campaign hasn’t generated the levels of enthusiasm in Florida that his 2008 effort did. Flemming also believes that the Obama team, anticipating the in-person early-voting crunch, made a smart move by emphasizing absentee voting this time around.

As a result, while the number of absentee ballots cast by Florida Republicans in 2008 beat the Democratic number by some 15 points, this year that gap narrowed dramatically to fewer than 5 points. In fact, the total number of absentee ballots cast in Florida so far is more than 2 million, up 8.7% from 2008. That brings the early-voting total in Florida (in-person and absentee ballots) to almost 4.5 million — more than in 2008. (In 2008, Florida had 11.2 million registered voters; this year it’s 11.5 million, so the total early-voter share of the state electorate is still about the same, around 38%.) In all, Democrats have cast almost 250,000 more early votes than Republicans have, and that number could climb when all the outstanding absentee ballots have come in. Obama likely ends up with an early-vote lead in Florida of about 5 points.

At the same time, Florida’s county-elections supervisors have the discretion (which they’re exercising today in counties like the most heavily populated, Miami-Dade, where voters on Sunday loudly protested the early-voting reduction) to in effect extend in-person early voting by letting people either hand in or make in-person requests for absentee ballots at elections offices. That should also raise the state’s total early-voting tally.

All of which prompted Flemming to ask in our conversation today, “Was all the screaming about early-voter suppression merited?” Maybe not, especially given how deftly the Obama campaign’s defense adjusted to the Florida GOP’s offense. But if the GOP ploy didn’t appreciably diminish early-voter tallies for Obama, and if Romney still ends up winning the state as polls are forecasting — one even has him up by 6 points — a just-as-pertinent question is: Why did Scott and the Florida legislature shoot itself in the democracy p.r. foot by going to all that effort to give their state, if not the whole country, the very distinct impression that they were in fact trying to reduce turnout? Image-wise, one of their dumbest moves was to cancel early voting on Sundays, which is especially helpful to lower-income voters who might not be able to take much time from work to vote on weekdays — and which has traditionally afforded black churches the opportunity to galvanize pulpits-to-the-polls efforts.

What’s also easily forgotten is that Florida Republicans used to like early voting. The GOP-controlled legislature approved the practice in 2002 in order to ease the ballot pipeline and avoid electoral debacles like the 2000 presidential vote re-count — and in the beginning it was a boon to conservative candidates. While Democrats are considered more enthusiastic early voters, the fact is that it “disproportionately rewards campaigns that are better organized,” as an expert once put it to me, and in Florida that usually meant Republican campaigns. In 2004, when George W. Bush won Florida by 5 points, the Sunshine State’s typical early voter was an elderly white Republican male.

But then came 2008, when Obama’s campaign galvanized women and minorities, and the typical early voter was more likely to be a young African-American woman. Whether or not reducing early-voting days significantly disadvantaged that demographic, quite a few Floridians believe that was Scott’s intent — and that could further reduce his re-election chances in 2014.