Florida Democrats’ domination of vote-by-mail in the 2020 elections is slipping, according to Florida Division of Election records, as participation appears to be returning to pre-pandemic levels.
As of Wednesday, 47.5 percent of the about 490,000 party-affiliated voters who have voted by mail so far are Republican. In 2018, 52.3% of party-affiliated voters who voted by mail in the primary were Republican, but that share fell to 40.5% in 2020.
In total, 598,761 mail-in votes have been cast so far including third party and unaffiliated voters. There are over 2.6 million ballots that have been sent out but not yet returned.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, vote-by-mail in 2020 increased to record levels across the state for both political parties, but Democrats caused most of those increases. The number of Democrats who voted-by-mail in the primaries increased from 564,607 to almost 1.2 million from 2018 to 2020, while Republicans increased from about 620,000 to 810,000.
The Republican increase was also smaller in the 2020 general election, where 40.7% of the about 3.7 million Florida party-affiliated mail votes were cast by Republicans. The party outpaced Democrats in that category during the 2018 general election.
The underperformance came as national Republican figures were railing against widespread vote-by-mail and state Republicans were working to protect it for their party. Then-President Donald Trump was speaking out against it, starting the summer before the election, but later walked it back for Florida. Florida Republicans were also sending out mailers advocating for Republicans and independents to get mail-in ballots as Trump was criticizing it nationally.
GOP voting by mail coming back to pre-pandemic numbers
Two years later and the messaging, the participation and share of Republicans appear to be returning to pre-2020 numbers, although their lead has not returned. Some experts have been concerned that election laws pushed by state Republicans and Gov. Ron DeSantis after the 2020 election could curb mail-in participation overall, a question that won’t be answered until after the 2022 primary and general elections.
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said the rebound doesn’t surprise him, adding that it’s indicative of a return to normal after the pandemic and Trump’s anti-vote-by-mail messaging.
“Florida Republicans kind of pioneered it,” he told City & State. “If you look back over the last decade, Republicans had a pretty sizable lead in a number of elections and vote-by-mail. Trump speaking out so harshly against it fades over time, because the bottom line is, it's just a lot more convenient for many voters. They like to get their ballot in the mail, they like to take their time looking it over and filling it out without all the pressures of standing in line or having other people around you.”
Jewett says it is reasonable to anticipate some of Trump’s staunchest supporters to still be hesitant to vote-by-mail, but that likely won’t have a party-wide impact in 2022 as it did last election. “If I was the Republican Party of Florida, I certainly wouldn't take it for granted that everybody’s just going to go back to normal, but I think the majority of people won’t be turned off (of) voting-by-mail because of the reason it became popular in the first place – its convenience,” he says.
Broward mail voting woes may have contributed to lower numbers
Unsurprisingly, the Florida counties that lead the pack for the most residents who have voted by mail so far are among the state’s most populous. Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties are the only two with over 40,000 mail votes cast so far, with 51,679 and 41,463 respectively. Pinellas, the state’s sixth most populated county, rounds out the top three with 39,452 cast so far.
One of the state’s most populated counties, however, is underperforming. Broward, the second-most populated county behind Miami-Dade, is only sixth with 33,237 cast. It is being outpaced by counties three times less populated, like Lee County’s 37,663 votes.
To be sure, Broward has been marred by vote-by-mail difficulties. About 25,000 ballots were late going out, and some voters have reported receiving incorrect ballots in the mail. The issues have caused some residents to express concern about further issues with the vote-by-mail process in the county.
All of Florida’s 67 counties have reported mail-in ballots, but the county that's received the least so far is DeSoto County. Just 109 ballots have come from the 37,371-person county.