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2020

Florida Democrats howl, Republicans seek nuance after Donald Trump condemns vote-by-mail

Vote-by-mail has been very good for Florida Republicans for a long time.

As President Donald Trump railed Tuesday and Wednesday against vote-by-mail,  Florida Democrats cried foul, while Florida Republican election strategists sought ground that would support Trump’s concerns and vote-by-mail at the same time.

Nationally and in Florida, Democrats are embracing big-scale, statewide mail-in voting as a safe way for people to cast ballots in the era of the coronavirus crisis and social distancing.

Yet in Florida, vote-by-mail, in fact, has been very, very good to Republicans for 30-some years.

Trump’s latest broadside:

“I think mail-in voting is horrible. It’s corrupt,” Trump said Tuesday at his press briefing.

On Wednesday morning he doubled down in a tweet while redefining his statement a bit.

“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason,  doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” he wrote.

Trump drew somewhat of a distinction by referring in his tweet to state-wide mail-in voting, a strategy in use in some states such as Washington and being advocated for more broadly, particularly by some Democrats.

“We can’t have Democracy if we don’t have safe and secure elections. The solution to safe voting in a pandemic is vote-by-mail,” said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa. “It’s proven, it’s easy, and it allows voters to stay at home and vote.

“Trump’s attempts to invalidate vote-by-mail are as dangerous as they are ridiculous, and Gov. [Ron] DeSantis and Republicans in the legislature better not follow his lead and put Floridians’ lives at risk,” Peñalosa continued.

Republicans in Florida practically owned vote-by-mail for most of 30 years, starting with the 1988 election. That year the party and the U.S. Senate campaign of Connie Mack, then a U.S. Representative, put a lot of energy and resources into encouraging what was then called absentee balloting, especially for the military and veteran communities they were counting on in the Panhandle.

The Republican Party of Florida built upon that strategy throughout the 1990s, resulting in the GOP’s vote-by-mail campaign probably winning the presidency for George W. Bush in 2000.

“There is ample evidence of Republicans winning Florida elections over the years up and down the ticket as a result of a robust and well-executed vote-by-mail program,” said former RPOF Executive Director David Johnson. “Connie Mack’s Senate victory in 1988 is legend. George W. Bush in 2000 won the state by 537 votes, and his mail vote advantage far exceeded that.”

Mack’s 1988 campaign press secretary Mark Mills agreed, noting that contest with Democratic U.S. Rep. Buddy MacKay was not determined until about two weeks after Election Day.

“We were pushed over [into the lead] when the absentees were counted. There’s no question the absentees played a critical role in our victory,” Mills recalled. “And the party’s strong effort to be involved [in promoting absentee voting] was essential to putting us over the top, no question about it.”

Still, Johnson and Mills agreed with Trump’s contention that the risks of fraud become serious with mass mail-in voting, particularly if “vote harvesting” gets practiced, as campaigns go into the field to get voters to fill out and sign ballots. Mills said he saw what could happen when he worked campaigns in Cleveland and Chicago.

The practice is illegal in Florida. It’s why Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer was arrested, jailed, and suspended from office in 2005, under allegations that he oversaw vote harvesting in his campaign. The charges were dismissed after prosecutors reconsidered and concluded his campaign had not overstepped the statutes, and he resumed what is now a 17-year tenure as Mayor.

Johnson also cautioned against potential confusion and chaos he said could happen if all voters were automatically mailed ballots, whether they wanted them or not.

“I would not support any situation where every registrant automatically received a ballot in the mail, that could create undue chaos and confusion,” he said. “However, vote-by-mail will be a key part of the total solution to the physical election challenges this pandemic is presenting, and vote-by-mail is not inherently fraudulent.”

RPOF Chairman Joe Gruters threw some nuance into a statement he released Wednesday that offered full-throated support for Trump’s concerns, while still supporting vote-by-mail in general.

He cautioned it is too early to know if the coronavirus crisis will bear on primaries voting in August and the general election in November. He said supervisors of elections are looking at various scenarios and options now.

“It is also important to note that Florida allows all eligible persons to vote by mail for any reason at all. In the meantime, the RPOF continues to encourage voters to vote by mail through our paid and volunteer efforts,” Gruters stated.

Then he added: “We agree with President Trump that an all vote-by-mail ballot election is not feasible in Florida and the president of the Statewide Florida Supervisors of Elections said, as recently as yesterday, they share the same view. Florida would likely see massive delays in counting votes and reporting results for days if not weeks. Florida currently is well positioned with plenty of opportunities and ample time for voters who wish to VBM to do so. As we do every election cycle, the Florida GOP will push VBM requests and returns among Republicans.”

Longtime Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said Republicans have long counted on those mail-in ballots to overcome Democrats’ early voting. When Republicans would get nervous about early voting numbers, longtime Orange County Republican Chair Lew Oliver always would assure them, “don’t worry,” and then the vote-by-mail ballots would usually prove him right, Cowles said.

“Only recently have Democrats woken up to vote-by-mail and made it a priority,” Cowles said.

More than 2.5 million Floridians voted by mail in 2018.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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