Clinton campaign urges Florida to max out early voting hours

Campaign workers approach voters as they go to cast their votes during a ‘Souls to the Polls’ event at the North Miami Library polling station on Sunday, August 28, 2016.
Campaign workers approach voters as they go to cast their votes during a ‘Souls to the Polls’ event at the North Miami Library polling station on Sunday, August 28, 2016. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Locked in a tight race in Florida where turnout is key to victory, Hillary Clinton wants counties to expand early voting to the most days and hours allowed by state law.

But with voting by mail fast becoming the most popular way to vote in the state, it won’t happen.

Early voting in Florida can start Oct. 24 for up to 12 hours a day, ending on the Sunday before Election Day, Nov. 8. Voters can vote at any early voting site in their county, and many are open until 6 p.m. or later.

Despite the state’s history of long lines at early voting sites, just nine of 67 counties will offer the maximum 168 hours of early voting: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Charlotte and Duval. Still, that covers nearly half of all Florida voters.

Miami-Dade, with 1.3 million voters, will open 30 early voting sites, more than any other county, at libraries, community centers and city halls. The list is on the county elections website, miamidade.gov/elections.

Broward Supervisor of Elections Dr. Brenda Snipes decided to offer early voting for 14 days from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. after some voters expressed fear of long lines.

Snipes added a 21st site at the South Regional Library at Broward College, 7300 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines, to ease congestion at nearby sites.

“Everybody will have the opportunity to vote early if that’s what they chose to do,” she said.

Hillsborough will have 14 days of early voting at 16 locations for eight hours each day.

Pasco will provide eight days of early voting at eight sites for 12 hours a day.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. “We’re very comfortable with our eight locations.”

Corley said Pasco could set a record for mail ballot requests this fall, but he senses less voter enthusiasm than in 2008, which he predicts will result in a lower turnout.

“I hope I’m wrong,” he said.

Republicans steadily outpace Democrats in mail ballot requests in Florida, while voting early at regional centers remains a staple of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts.

Fort Lauderdale lawyer Zach Learner, head of voter protection efforts in Florida for the Clinton campaign, said too many counties are offering too little early voting.

“When access is limited or hours are restricted, voting is less convenient than it should be and more voting options is never a bad thing,” Learner said. “The goal should be to have as many early voting sites as possible and we hope that supervisors will be responsive to voters and their communities.”

Even as Democrats clamor for more early voting, they are urging their voters to vote by mail as never before — including a letter from President Barack Obama that makes it sound like a new option.

“In Florida, voting is easier than ever because now you can vote by mail,” says a letter paid for by the Florida Democratic Party. “It’s the fastest and most convenient way to make your voice heard.”

The Clinton forces support St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and African-American pastors, who have called on Pinellas County to add an early voting site that’s closer to where many of the city’s black voters live.

“It is our goal to make voting as easy and accessible as possible to every community,” Learner said. “An early vote site in St. Petersburg would have made that possible.”

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has five early voting sites, including one in downtown St. Petersburg. She said she won’t add sites because all voters regardless of race prefer to vote by mail.

For nearly a decade, Clark has run the state’s most aggressive vote-by-mail program. Three-fourths of county voters voted by mail in the Aug. 30 primary, by far the highest ratio of any Florida county.

The Republican National Committee said it is satisfied that voters in Florida have ample opportunities to vote.

“We trust local officials to set election calendars that serve the needs of Florida voters,” said party spokesman Ninio Fetalvo. “It is our job as the RNC to continue our historic ground game efforts to elect Republicans up and down the ticket.”

The Republican Legislature curtailed early voting in the 2012 election, which led to seven-hour delays at some sites and made Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Haitian immigrant from Miami who waited for hours to vote, a national symbol of what Democrats called a Republican tactic of voter suppression.

In the furor that followed, lawmakers retooled the law in 2013 to give elections supervisors more flexibility in days, hours and voting locations.

Counties must offer early voting for a minimum of eight days for at least eight hours each day, including at least one Saturday and Sunday. They can provide early voting on the Sunday before Election Day when Democrats rally black voters to vote after church, a program known as “Souls to the Polls.”

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com, and follow @stevebousquet.

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