This week, the deadline passed for new Florida voter registrations ahead of the general election. With less than a month until election day, county elections supervisors are preparing for a high-interest election and a longer-than-usual ballot.
After preparing for the past 18 months, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho says Florida’s capital county is in full presidential-election mode. He says, in 2008, the county that includes Tallahassee had a record turnout of 86 percent, and that number could very well be surpassed this year.
“It’s busy here," he said. "And people are calling our office; they’re asking for those mail-in ballots; they’re asking for where their polling place is. They’re checking their status. All of these things are going on right now.”
Recent polls show Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a dead heat with President Barack Obama in the state. And, Sancho says, the high interest from voters is compounded with a shorter early-voting period.
“Five days have been cut from early voting," he said. "And in 2008, almost 15,000 Leon County-ans availed themselves of that first week to vote. That first week is gone.”
This year, early voting will start on Sat., Oct. 27, and run through Sat., Nov. 3. And to make up for the fewer days, most elections supervisors are extending their hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. But, Sancho says, he’s not sure the adjustment will be able to accommodate everyone who wants to vote early, which could lead to longer lines on election day, Nov. 6.
The controversial changes to the early-voting period, passed by the 2011 Florida Legislature, were part of a package of elections-law changes that also placed tighter restrictions on groups that hold registration drives. Many groups had halted their drives altogether until a judge struck down the restrictions in June.
Then, groups like Hispanic advocacy group Florida New Majority scrambled to make up for lost time before the Oct. 8 deadline.
“The amazing thing is that through those challenges, that many other partners throughout the state, have really been making huge inroads so that record numbers of black, Latino and other minority groups in particular—low income folks, seniors, youth, will once again be able to vote," said the New Majority's Gihan Perera.
Those registration drives have contributed to an almost 189,000 additional voters being added to the rolls just since August, according to the state Division of Elections. Of those new voters, 43 percent are registered Democrats and just 22 percent are registered Republicans. Overall, Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost half a million in Florida.
But that registration edge, which Democrats have long held in the state, doesn’t translate to guaranteed wins for Democratic candidates. In the last 10 presidential elections, Florida swung Republican seven times.
And no matter who turns out to the polls, Sancho says, they’ll confront somewhat of an endurance test in this year’s ballot. It includes 11 lengthy constitutional amendments, justices up for merit retention and a host of local races.
“It’s the longest ballot that we’ve had in the history of the state that we’ve had in Leon County," he said.
He suggests marking sample ballots at home before heading to the polls.
And former Republican Florida lawmaker Alex Villalobos says, he’s also afraid of ballot fatigue. He and his nonprofit group, Democracy at Stake, have held voter focus groups around Florida to learn about voting habits.
“As you go down on the ballot, you know, president, U.S. Senate, as you go down, less and less people vote," he said. "There’s like a 30 percent drop-off between the people that vote for president and the people that vote for the justices.”
Although the new-voter registration deadline has passed, Florida residents who have moved since the last election can still register their new address up to the election. They can vote by absentee mail-in ballot, during the early-voting period and on Nov. 6.