Politics

Early vote figures don’t lie. But who figures?

 

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

If anyone wondered why the GOP-led Legislature reduced the number of in-person early-voting days in Florida, Saturday told you everything you needed to know.

Democrats turned out in force, casting about 49 percent of the roughly 300,000 votes in just 12 hours across the state. Republicans cast 35 percent of the in-person ballots.

Republicans prefer to vote by absentee ballots, which are typically mailed in. The GOP led Democrats by a whopping 66,000 ballots cast on Saturday. Democratic early voting cut that lead by 60 percent in a single day.

All told, 1.6 million Floridians had voted by Sunday morning.

And by Monday morning, when the previous day’s vote tallies are released, that number will grow by the hundreds of thousands. And there’s a chance Democrats could surpass Republicans in pre-Election Day ballots cast.

Sunday was a big day to get out the Democratic base — the black vote — as part of a “Souls to the Polls” rally. This was the only day available for after-church weekend voting because the Legislature eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

“They’ve cut back the time, but they can’t cut back the line,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, an MSNBC host and founder of the National Action Network, who stumped in South Florida this weekend.

“The lines are longer,” Sharpton said. “And they may be stronger.”

But the evidence of the longer, stronger lines also conflicts with a talking point from liberals: That the Legislature engaged in “voter suppression” by reducing the number of early-voting days from 14 to eight.

Before 2002, there was no early in-person voting at all. Since then, the Legislature has also expanded chances to cast absentee ballots in Florida. Absentee-ballot voting has gone on for almost a month. It’s easy to request and get one. Almost too easy.

So there’s plenty of time for anyone to cast a ballot (unless you’re a felon, which is a separate issue).

Meantime, conservatives are doing their own share of spinning.

The reduction of early voting hours was made in a package of legislative reforms designed to crack down on voter fraud. But the law didn’t touch absentee-ballot voting, which is the easiest way to commit voter fraud (and it’s not that easy to cast fake ballots, either, especially on a significant scale).

The GOP dominates absentee-ballot voting in Florida. So the GOP Legislature saw little reason to harm their vote-by-mail program. And when The Miami Herald began reporting about fraud issues related to absentee ballots in August, Republicans started complaining that the news media were trying to suppress the GOP vote.

Now that in-person and mail-in ballot voting is underway, there’s a wealth of new data for each side to complain and boast about.

The Democrats are pointing to the big early-vote gains over the weekend as evidence that President Barack Obama has momentum and an unrivaled ground game to turn out voters.

Republicans are pointing to the absentee-ballot numbers as proof that Mitt Romney is favored. And they’re leading despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 536,000 in Florida — a registration gap Republicans have narrowed by about 122,000 since 2008.

Democrats counter with this stat: They’ve narrowed the gap in absentee ballots cast by about two-thirds, to about 5 percent, since 2008.

And on it goes.

Here’s what’s pretty clear: Both parties are turning out their bases. That leaves Election Day more in the hands of the undecideds, the swing voters, the independents, who primarily consider themselves to officially belong to “no party affiliation” (an actual classification) in Florida. They are 24 percent of the electorate.

Right now, polls indicate that they’re siding with Romney.

A Miami Herald poll showed Obama winning Miami-Dade — Florida’s largest county — but not by enough to give him comfort. A Tampa Bay Times poll showed Romney winning the swing area of the swing state, the so-called I-4 Corridor. Both surveys were taken by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.

If the polls are right, then Romney wins Florida.

If the polls are wrong, Romney loses Florida and his chances at the White House because, thanks to the vagaries of the Electoral College map, the Republican needs Florida more than the Democrat does.

But public-opinion surveys are just that: surveys for a period of time. They have margins of errors for a reason. They’re not actual votes in the bank. Yet they’re not invented out of whole cloth.

Good campaigns can make the polls seem wrong. For Obama, that means getting sporadic voters — those missed in likely voter surveys — to show up and vote. For Romney, that means getting the likely voters to stay on board and cast their ballots accordingly.

It’s all evidence that the smartest saying in politics is the most obvious: It’s all about turnout.

This election will be decided by the better campaign, the one that turns out its base and gets enough independents to go along. It probably won’t be decided by voter suppression. And it probably won’t be decided by voter fraud, either.

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