President Barack Obama’s campaign, eager to bank as many early votes as possible in Florida, is launching an unprecedented program to encourage supporters to vote by absentee ballot right away.
The "Vote Now!" initiative aims to spread the word that voters can go to their local elections office, request an absentee ballot, and complete and return the ballot on the spot. That option has been available for years, but this is the first time a campaign has organized a statewide effort to promote the process.
"We’re encouraging voters to not wait and cast their ballot today," said Ashley Walker, Florida director of the Obama for America campaign. "We will be utilizing all of the resources we have available to us to ensure folks know about this option, and understand how it works. We want to make this election as easily accessible and open to any eligible voter as possible."
Walker said they will spread the word through phone banks, door-to-door canvassing and other outreach efforts.
The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott last year cut the number of early voting days from 14 to eight and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before election day — over the objections of Democratic leaders. The Florida Obama campaign decided in response to make more of a push on absentee ballots, and encourage people to treat them much like in-person early voting, which doesn’t start until Oct. 27.
The deadline to register for the Nov. 6 election ended Tuesday, and now comes the phase where campaigns will feverishly work to turn out voters.
Florida Democrats have enjoyed a significant advantage over Republicans with in-person early votes since that option began in 2002, while Republicans have long had an advantage with absentee voting.
Early absentee ballot statistics this year show Democrats significantly cutting into that traditional GOP advantage in Florida — in 2008 Republicans requested 15 percent more absentee ballots than Democrats, but so far this year Republicans have requested only 4 percent more — and the "Vote Now!" effort underway quietly for several weeks could help continue that trend.
"This is just another way that you can vote," Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard, a Republican, said of the effort.
Last year, Lennard noticed people picking up mail-in ballots in person and filling them out in the parking lot before returning them, so he added privacy booths inside for people to complete the ballot. The more people who vote early either with absentee ballots or at early voting locations, Lennard said, means less chance for people to show up at the wrong precinct on election day.
Pasco County elections supervisor Brian Corley earlier this month said many voters were confused about a recorded call from the Obama campaign encouraging them to visit their elections office, request absentee ballots, and cast them on the spot. He said some voters did not understand the difference between voting at early voting sites, which begins Oct. 27, and voting in-person using absentee ballots, which is already underway.
Absentee ballots can be turned in up until 7 p.m. on election day.
The Obama campaign kicks off the "Vote Now!" campaign Wednesday with events featuring volunteers and supporters casting absentee ballots in St. Petersburg, Orlando, Jacksonville, Miami, Sarasota, Pensacola and St. Lucie County.
Meanwhile, Republicans are touting a much more robust voter mobilization effort in Florida than they mounted four years ago.
"Just yesterday, we surpassed nine million voter contacts in Florida alone. The unprecedented support for Gov. Romney is seen in the hours volunteers have dedicated to making phone calls and knocking on doors, and it was on full display last weekend as thousands of Florida voters, who know we can’t afford four more years like the last four years, came out to hear more about his plan for a stronger middle class," said campaign spokesman Jeff Bechdel, referring to Romney’s three-day swing through the state. "The infrastructure we have in place now to contact voters will be a powerful tool in our ’get out the vote’ efforts in the coming weeks."