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Democrats scramble to reach voters after Florida cancels mail-in ballot requests

More than a million mail-in ballot requests were canceled in three counties in January. Democrats say they're working to stem the effects of the change.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballot at a polling station on November 08, 2022 in Miami, Florida. After months of candidates campaigning, Americans are voting in the midterm elections to decide close races across the nation.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling station in Miami in 2022.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Florida Democrats say they’re spending and organizing to chase down people who vote by mail after election officials across the state canceled all standing mail ballot requests this year.

The mass cancellations were to comply with a 2021 election law that added new restrictions to mail-in voting. The legislation — which was celebrated by Gov. Ron DeSantis and slammed by voting rights advocates as discriminatory — cut the duration of mail-in ballot requests in half from four years to two. It also required that existing requests for mail ballots be canceled at the end of 2022, forcing election workers to cancel millions of requests and start their lists of vote-by-mail voters from scratch.

In practice, that means that voters who requested mail-in ballots in 2021 or 2022 will have to make such requests again to vote in local races and the 2024 primary and general elections. In previous years, voters would not have had to request a ballot again for four years.

Democrats in the state say the change disproportionately affects their voters, who have embraced mail-in voting more than Republicans since 2020, when then-President Donald Trump falsely claimed mail-in voting was rife with fraud. The new law is forcing campaigns to adapt; Democrats say they're organizing aggressively to educate voters about renewing their mail ballot requests, sapping resources from voter registration and other outreach efforts. 

“It’s doing exactly what they intended it to do, which is suppress voters and take resources,” said Nikki Fried, chair of the state Democratic Party. “Instead of focusing our money, resources and time on other endeavors and talking to voters, we’re having to spend resources to get people back on the rolls.”

Campaigns and volunteers who might have connected with voters once or twice to remind them to return their mail-in ballots may now need to connect with them three and four times to turn out a vote, Fried said.

“I’ll be very honest with you: In the Black community, it’s very top of mind,” said Shevrin Jones, a state senator who represents part of Miami-Dade County. He runs a group called Operation BlackOut, which focuses on getting Black voters to sign up for mail ballot requests. They are just one of the many groups mobilizing to get voters of color on the mail-in voting list, he said.

Election officials, too, say they’re sending out mailers and text messages and reminding voters of the change whenever they get the chance. But in the six months since the ballot requests were canceled, less than a third of voters in three large counties have taken steps to request mail ballots again.

Miami-Dade County received 438,000 mail ballot requests at the end of last year; by July 1, its mail ballot list had more than 92,000 voters. Hillsborough County had 320,000 voters on its list at the end of last year, and now has at least 70,000 voters signed up for mail ballots. Broward County said its records reflect the totals on Election Day in November, when it sent out 428,000 mail ballots to voters. At the beginning of July, Broward had just 35,000 voters set up to receive mail ballots.

A significant number of those ballot requests would have required renewal before the 2024 election, but Democratic strategist Ashley Walker said local candidates and campaigns — like in this year’s Jacksonville mayoral race — are feeling the effects this year. High turnout in federal elections can drive turnout in local races, because voters who signed up for mail ballots will automatically receive their ballot in the mail.

"Do I think it’s gonna affect the presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump or whoever ends up being the ultimate nominee? Probably not. It’s probably your primary elections, your local elections folks that’s going to be impacted most by this decision,” Walker said.

Walker said Florida Republicans had long bested Democrats in the state with mail-in voters, but in recent years Democrats invested in promoting mail-in voting.

"The rule was devised in a way to try to eliminate any kind of advantage that Democrats have gained," she said. "But at the end of the day the task is the same. The task at hand is still the same: you gotta turn people out."