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Tuesday, Mar 26, 2019
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The political stakes get higher as early voting begins in Florida

The stakes in Florida's closely-watched midterm election will intensify starting Monday as the state's largest counties provide up to 14 straight days of early voting.

In a year in which voter turnout is a key to victory, nearly 1 million people have already voted by mail and 31 of 67 counties will add early voting, in which people can vote at any site in their home county.

The size of the crowds at early voting sites will be one test of whether a blue wave exists among Florida Democrats. They historically have favored early voting more than Republicans, who usually prefer voting by mail or in person on election day.

"As we get into in-person early voting, it is likely we will see record vote counts," predicted Democratic strategist Steve Schale. "I am confident of one thing: This election is going to be very close … It is shaping up to be a Florida election."

The last four major statewide elections in Florida have been decided by a single percentage point: President Donald Trump's 2016 win, Gov. Rick Scott's two victories in 2014 and 2010 and President Barack Obama's re-election victory in 2012.

In the last midterm election four years ago, more than 555,000 Democrats voted early compared to about 519,000 Republicans. So far in this election, Republicans are outpacing Democrats in returning mail ballots.

Miami-Dade has 28 early voting sites, Broward 22 and Hillsborough 20. The biggest county with the fewest early voting sites is Pinellas, with five sites, where voting by mail is by far the most popular of the three methods of voting.

In addition, early voting will be available for the first time on the campuses of Florida's major state colleges and universities. On-campus early voting, ordered by a federal court, could drive up turnout among college students across Florida, and both political parties are targeting college-age voters.

"We just want our students to develop a lifetime habit of voting," said University of Florida President Dr. Kent Fuchs. "It's also just trying to make it more convenient for them, so they don't waste time in line. This is a way of just making it a little easier for them."

Scott's administration in 2014 rejected a request by the city of Gainesville to use the Reitz Union building on the UF campus for early voting. The state Division of Elections said the Reitz Union didn't fit the state Legislature's definition of a "government-owned community center."

When the League of Women Voters and Priorities USA Foundation challenged the campus early voting ban in court, Scott's office called it "frivolous," an "election-year gimmick" and the work of "partisan D.C. lawyers."

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker struck down the ban in July, calling it a "stark pattern of discrimination."

Hours after Walker ruled, Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton sent a letter to Fuchs, asking to hold early voting on campus.

Other election supervisors moved to add early voting sites on or adjacent to the campuses of FSU, USF, UCF, FIU, FAU, Florida A&M, the University of North Florida, University of West Florida and Miami-Dade College's two largest campuses in Miami and Kendall.

"Students are energized," said Dan Horton, Florida director of All Voting is Local, which is using social media, digital ads and billboards to increase student awareness of campus early voting sites in Florida.

Former Vice President Joe Biden will headline Democratic get-out-the-vote rallies Monday at USF's East Gym and at UNF's field house in Jacksonville.

The Republican National Committee, working with the Young Republican National Federation and other groups, held a get-out-the-vote event on Saturday in suburban Orlando's Seminole County.

Early voting also begins Monday in three small Panhandle counties that were hit hard by Hurricane Michael: Calhoun, Gadsden and Liberty.

They are among eight hurricane-stricken counties covered by an executive order issued by Scott that allowed them to expand early voting locations and times at their discretion through election day, Nov. 6.

In all other counties, early voting must end Sunday, Nov. 4. That date is known as "souls to the polls," as candidates and political groups urge voters to vote early after church, particularly in African-American neighborhoods.

The other counties that will offer early voting starting Monday are Alachua, Bradford, Broward, Charlotte, DeSoto, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Hendry, Hillsborough, Indian River, Jefferson, Lake, Lee, Leon, Levy,  Miami-Dade, Monroe, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Lucie and Taylor.

Other counties will begin early voting in the days ahead, and all 67 counties must offer it by Saturday, Oct. 27.

Every voter must show a photo ID and provide signature verification at any early voting site. The complete list of all early voting sites and hours can be found here. Some counties routinely report early voting wait times on their web sites.

Floridians will elect a U.S. senator, governor, three Cabinet members, members of Congress and scores of state legislators, and will decide 12 proposed amendments to the state Constitution dealing with taxation, voting rights for convicted felons, offshore oil drilling, greyhound dog racing and other issues.

The length of the ballot has stirred fears of long lines of voters, and some counties have added early voting sites and voting machines in anticipation of bottlenecks at polling stations.

"Unfortunately, this year's ballot is a perfect storm for long lines on election day and ballot fatigue among our voters," wrote Collier County Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards in an op-ed column sent to the state's newspapers. "Each Collier County voter will receive two 17-inch ballot sheets with content on all four sides."

Edwards and her staff set up a mock polling room and tested how long voters will take to complete the process, from check-in to filing their ballots. It generally took from 10 to 15 minutes per voter.

Florida had the longest waiting lines at early voting sites of any state in the 2012 presidential election, as some frail and elderly voters stood under a scorching sun for up to seven hours.

There also were a dozen initiatives on the ballot that year, and Scott and the state Legislature had reduced early voting days, a decision they reversed the following year.

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