When Republicans shortened early voting days in Florida, black leaders say it was like handing voters a lemon.
"So we’re going to make lemonade," Victor T. Curry, senior minister at New Birth Baptist Church, told 150 black pastors from South Florida on Monday.
Thus began Operation Lemonade, a massive vote-turnout operation scheduled to start before the first early in-person voting polls open Saturday, Oct. 27.
The effort is technically nonpartisan. The name "President Obama" was notably absent from the ministers’ gathering.
But it didn’t need to be said.
Black voters overwhelmingly support the president, who needs their vote more than ever now that he’s slipping in the polls to Mitt Romney in Florida and nationwide.
At the same time, Republicans are making a big push to bank early votes by absentee ballots.
So far, nearly 330,000 people have already voted by absentee ballot. Republicans, outnumbered in the state, have so far outvoted Democrats by absentee ballots, 44-40 percent.
The absentee-ballot data show that the biggest battleground is in the Tampa Bay area, where 44,000 ballots have been voted in Pinellas and 30,000 in Hillsborough counties — the two highest in the state. Democrats hold slight leads in voting those ballots, which are typically mailed in.
Miami-Dade is the third-most active county for absentee ballots — 25,000 have been voted so far — and Republicans hold a lead there.
Relatively few of the absentee ballot voters, though, are black.
By and large, black voters don’t trust the mail-in ballot system. And they prefer to head to the polls to personally hand their ballot to a local election official.
In 2008, black voters swamped the early voting polls, leading then-Gov. Charlie Crist to issue an executive order to keep the stations open longer. In all, early voting lasted a total of 120 hours over 14 days in 2008. Obama carried Florida — a must-win for his Republican opponents — and therefore won the presidency.
The GOP-controlled Legislature responded by capping early voting hours to a maximum 96 hours over eight days. It also eliminated early voting the Sunday before Election Day, when African Americans would vote in droves as part of their “souls to the polls” turnout tradition that began with the advent of early voting in 2002.
The Republican early vote limitations have black voters fired up — and ready to vote, Curry said.
"Last time it was about making history," Curry said. "This time it’s personal."
Curry is the Miami-Dade president of the National Action Network, a group founded by liberal activist and MSNBC host Al Sharpton, who is expected to attend the kickoff of Operation Lemonade, which begins 7 a.m. Oct. 27 at Miami-Dade’s government center in downtown Miami at an early-voting polling station.
The group will move then to the South Dade Regional Library in Cutler Bay, the Lauderhill Mall and then the E. Pat Larkin Community Center in Pompano Beach.
At the same time, the Obama campaign has launched its get-out-the-vote effort to encourage early and absentee-ballot voting. It also plans to have a “Souls to the Polls” rally on Sunday, Oct. 28.
Republicans say they have a “tried and true” operation that has allowed them to bank hundreds of thousands of more absentee ballots than Democrats during presidential election years.
Republicans have not only voted more absentee ballots than Democrats, they’ve requested more. And, Republicans say, only 13 percent of the Republican absentee-ballot requests are from longtime early voters. But 23 percent of the Democratic requests are from their typical early voters.
"Not only are the Democrats merely shifting their early voters to become absentee voters (thus diluting their historical advantage in early voting), but the voters they are shifting are those who are already the most likely to vote this year," according to an analysis from the Republican National Committee.
Counting requested and voted ballots together, Republicans lead Democrats by about 64,000.
Tom Brandt, an RNC spokesman, said the Republican “ground game across Florida continues to build strength, with volunteers reaching 9.5 million voter contacts, six times more phone calls and 61 times more door knocks than this time in 2008.”
“Floridians can’t afford four more years of President Obama’s failed policies and understand the clear choice between two very different visions for our nation’s future,” he said in a statement. “Heading in to the final weeks, momentum is on our side with Republicans leading Democrats in absentee requests by over 64,000 voters.”
But the Obama campaign said it’s confident with its volunteer army of 200,000 people, which has helped it registered more than 322,000 new voters.
Outside efforts, like the National Action Network’s Operation Lemonade, should only increase the Democrats’ reach.
Curry said black voters won’t forget that Republicans have tried to “suppress” the vote, scuttle the agenda of the first black president and that they “thugged” the 2000 election in Florida, which George Bush won by 537 votes to capture the White House.
Despite what Curry says is excitement for Obama, the bishop betrayed a hint of disappointment with a president who hasn’t visited any black churches this election season in Florida and has said relatively little about the plight of the poor.
Instead, Obama talks more about the middle class and the need to have the rich pay more in taxes. The president has repeatedly visited college campuses like the University of Miami, where he has spoken three times this year to gin up the youth vote.
“It’s very, very important that any politician encourage their base. That’s why you hear Romney,” Curry said. “If you have 90-95 percent of the African American vote. You’ve got to say something to them. You have to address them. You have to come to their churches. You have to go where they are.”