FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Floridians began early voting in much of the state Monday with no serious problems reported as the Trump campaign tries to cut into an early advantage Democrats have posted in mail-in votes in the key swing state.
The most populous counties reported wait times of 15 minutes or less at most of their early voting sites Monday, although a few sites reported waits of up to 90 minutes. One Palm Beach County site reported a three-hour wait. One county had to close an early voting site after the elections supervisor and an employee tested positive for the coronavirus and another county had its website go down. No other significant issues were reported by counties or voting rights groups.
In Miami, Reka Julien, a 40-year-old accountant, cast her vote for Democrat Joe Biden, saying she used to be a Republican but didn’t vote for President Donald Trump in 2016 and is angry over his handling of the coronavirus today.
“We just need a change. This COVID has got to go. Trump thinks this is a joke,” Julien said, adding her two children have been deprived of schooling, social activities and travel. “These four years have just been tough.”
In Orlando, some voters cast their ballots at the arena used by the NBA’s Magic, where coach Steve Clifford assisted poll workers. The NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning’s arena and the NFL’s Tampa Buccaneers stadium are also being used as early voting sites as sports teams around the country have been encouraging turn out.
“I felt like I was a player. I just had to make the right decisions,” said Anton Versch, 30, after he cast his ballot for Trump. Versch, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, said his main issue is “freedom,” particularly of speech and the right to bear arms.
“We should be able to do the most that we are allowed to do, as long as we aren’t infringing on anybody’s rights or liberties,” Versch said.
With 29 electoral votes, Florida is crucial to both candidates but especially Trump, who moved his official residence to his Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago from New York last year. A Florida loss would make it nearly impossible for Trump to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to retain the White House. The state typically has close elections, most notably in 2000 when Republican George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes after a recount.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, will visit Orlando and Jacksonville on Monday to encourage her party’s voters to cast early ballots. Trump will visit Florida on Friday after visiting last week.
Under state law, counties can offer up to two weeks of early voting and many do, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and other population centers. Large counties offer multiple sites and all counties allow those who have received mail-in ballots to drop them off. The latest a county can start early voting is Saturday. The final day is Nov. 1.
About 2.5 million mail-in ballots have already been cast, with Democrats returning 1.2 million and Republicans about 758,000 as of Monday. Non-affiliated voters and third-party members make up the rest. The number of mail-in votes is approaching the 2.7 million cast in 2016 when Republicans had a 70,000-vote margin on returns. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the state by about 113,000 votes. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.
Florida Republicans say they aren’t worried about the mail-in gap, believing any advantage Biden gets will be swamped by Trump supporters casting in-person ballots starting this week and on Election Day. They believe Democrats are “cannibalizing” their own votes — moving in-person voters to mail-in without increasing their overall support. They point to their increased voter registration, which narrowed the Democrats’ lead to 134,000, down 327,000 four years ago.
Political strategist Steve Schale, who runs the pro-Biden super PAC “Unite The Country,” said Monday that Democrats shouldn’t get comfortable.
“Republicans are going to get their vote out,” he said.
While Florida Republicans have historically outperformed Democrats in mail-in voting, Schale said Trump’s criticism of the practice has crippled his party’s Florida mail-in effort — even though he has praised his adopted home state’s system.
“Trump basically decided to take a match and just torch 20 years of Republican work down here,” he said.
In Orange County, the home of Orlando, the elections supervisor’s website was unavailable Monday morning because of a problem with its domain. Supervisor Bill Cowles said there was no issue with hacking, and it didn’t impact voting.
In the Panhandle, Okaloosa County Elections Supervisor Paul Lux announced that he and an employee tested positive for the coronavirus. That resulted in the closure of the early voting site at the county’s main office, but four other sites remained open. The Republican-dominated county has approximately 150,000 voters.
AP reporters Mike Schneider in Orlando and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee and photographers Lynne Sladky and Marta Lavandier in Miami contributed to this report.