FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — 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.
Many polling sites had long lines before dawn as voters awaited their opening. One county had to close an early voting sites after the elections supervisor and an employee tested positive for the coronavirus and another county had its website go down.
In Miami, Aldo Rodriguez, 62, lined up early to be near the front of the line and waited in heavy rain to cast his ballot for Democrat Joe Biden over President Donald Trump. He said he voted early and in person to make sure his ballot gets counted.
Biden "was already in the government before when he was vice president, and he knows pretty much how the country was running and hopefully he'll get it back the same way it was," Rodriguez said. "No fighting against any colors or races, we are all the same. …We shouldn't have this bickering against each other."
Near Fort Lauderdale, Helen Chervin stood in a Trump/Pence tent outside an early voting site, planning to cast her ballot for the president.
"President Trump will beat Biden," she told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Otherwise, Kamala Harris is going to run the show. I believe in Trump. He's going to clean the swamp."
In Orlando, some voters cast their ballots at the arena used by the NBA's Magic. 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 voters to turn out.
With its 29 electoral votes, Florida is crucial to both candidates but especially so for 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 over Biden, the former vice president.
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.
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 morning. Non-affiliated voters and third-party members make up the rest. The number of mail-in votes is already 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 have said 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.
In Orange County, the home of Orlando, the elections supervisor's website was unavailable for a short period 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 had 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.
Some elections in Florida have been won on the thinnest of margins, becoming the center of intense focus during recounts of ballots — including the 2000 presidential race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. The recount drew a chaotic slew of court challenges that ultimately ended with U.S. Supreme Court halting further recounting, deciding the race for Bush.
Elections officials are predicting that between mail-in ballots and early voting, about 70% of the ballots expected will be cast before Election Day. The state allows those ballots to be processed, but the actual count remains secret until after the polls close Nov. 3.
Counties must end early voting by Nov. 1. Mail-in ballots, with few exceptions, must be received by 7 p.m. Nov. 3.