Florida Democrats, tired of losing, reveal a voter registration plan to reverse the trend

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After watching their once formidable advantage in registered voters evaporate and losing an embarrassing amount of ground in South Florida in the last presidential election, Florida Democrats said Monday they’ve received the message and are going to change. Their solution is to kick off what they’re calling an unprecedented, well-funded effort to register voters.

Top Democratic elected officials and party leaders announced the launch of a $2.5 million effort to register new voters by the fall deadline for the November 2022 elections.

The effort will deploy “hundreds” of canvassers in “key markets” beginning with “five targeted areas” in Florida. The Democrats declined to reveal much else from their playbook.

It sounded similar to previous announcements. But state Democratic Party Chairman Manny Diaz, Florida Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation, incoming House Democratic Leader Ramon Alexander of Tallahassee, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava appeared together in a video news conference to outline the effort they said would be bigger and better than any party voter registration drive since at least former President Barack Obama’s successful 2012 re-election campaign.

Democrats face critical elections in November: They will attempt to defeat Gov. Ron DeSantis and derail his presidential ambitions, and attempt to defeat U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. They also hope to reduce the Republicans’ advantage in the number of members of Congress and state senators and state representatives.

Republicans in Florida have been pouring money and people into registering voters and then mobilizing those voters to turn out in elections. The trend is unmistakable: Republicans have been growing their numbers faster than Democrats.

  • In October 2021, Republican voter registrations overtook Democrats in Florida for the first time in modern history. At the end of the year, it was 35.9% Republican to 35.6% Democratic. The Republican lead was slight, 43,102 out of 14.3 million registered voters in the state. (Almost all the rest are no party affiliation/independent voters, the fastest growing category.)
  • At the end of 2012, Republican registered votes made up 35.4% of the total, compared to the Democrats’ 40%. The Democratic advantage was 558,272 out of 12 million registered voters.
  • At the end of 2002, Republicans accounted for 38.7% of registered voters compared to Democrats 42.4%. Democrats had 345,707 more registered voters than Republicans, out of a total of 9.3 million.

Despite those numbers, in statewide elections from 2002 through 2020, Republicans won 25 and Democrats won just six. Currently, the only statewide office held by a Democrat is agriculture commissioner. They haven’t won a top-tier race in Florida since 2012, when Obama and then-U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson prevailed.

Diaz, the former mayor of Miami who was elected state Democratic chairman 13 months ago, said a coordinated, comprehensive voter registration effort was overdue.

“As you know, over the course of the last 10 years the party’s efforts have been lacking in efforts and in continuity. We have let our guard down, especially during off years. And the other side have eaten away at our margins,” he said. “That’s not going to happen anymore. We’re changing the paradigm. We are renewing our fight for the heart and the soul of voters throughout our state of Florida.”

He also said it’s not quite as dire as the numbers appear. He said too many people look at the top-line number of active, registered voters. Inactive voters remain on the rolls, and can show up to vote, and if they can be mobilized, Diaz said Democrats aren’t in as bad a position as the numbers make it appear. Voters are declared inactive if they don’t vote for four years and don’t confirm their voter registration status.

Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Florida Republican Party, said Diaz’ explanation is unpersuasive. “We have always said we are ahead with active voter registrations and that is important. Inactive voters in ANY election makeup less than 1% of the electorate,” she said via email.

Ferré said there’s a more plausible reason for the Democrats’ problem: “We can only surmise that Florida Democrats are spending so heavily on voter registration to make up for their historic lack of enthusiasm caused by bad leadership and an even worse agenda…. Overwhelmingly, more people are choosing to register to the Republican Party on their own and this trend shows no sign of subsiding.”

Julia Friedland, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee in Florida, also scoffed at Diaz’ assertion. “Democrats’ ‘it’s not as bad as it looks’ Florida strategy isn’t going to lessen the blow of their losses come November. They should instead go back in time and do what Republicans have been doing in the state for years: invest in a multi-year data-driven ground game,” Friedland said via email.

Past efforts have been more piecemeal, or they’ve ended abruptly after a given election. Once Obama was re-elected, Diaz conceded “Democrats took their foot off the gas. There is absolutely no question about it.”

Diaz said the new effort wouldn’t end with the November 2022 election.

Christian Ulvert, a longtime campaign strategist currently working with Florida Senate Democrats, and Raymond Paultre, executive director of the Florida Alliance, a major group of big-money Democratic donors helping to finance the effort, said it would be the most comprehensive voter registration initiative since at least the 2011-2012 Obama campaign efforts that led to the former president winning the state for a second time.

They said the new effort would involve spending of $2.5 million.

In 2019, Terrie Rizzo, then the state Democratic Party chairwoman, announced a $2 million effort to register 200,000 voters before the 2020 presidential election.

Rizzo said at the time the “investment is monumental for the party,” adding that “The Florida Democratic Party has not dedicated enough resources to voter registration in recent years, and we are making it a top priority ahead of 2020.” The 2019 plan was billed as involving technology, date and hiring field organizers throughout the state.

Then, in March 2020 then-national Democratic Chairman Tom Perez visited South Florida to announce a big effort in Florida.

Within weeks, coronavirus was spreading rapidly and the Democratic effort shut down, and most of the party’s efforts moved to the virtual world, largely abandoning in-person efforts to register and mobilize voters.

Republicans barely missed a beat and ramped up their in-person efforts leading up to the November 2022 election. In 2020, Democrats cut way back on in-person efforts at registering and mobilizing voters and former President Donald Trump had a bigger Florida victory than in 2016. Trump’s 51.2% of the vote, 3.3 percentage points ahead of Joe Biden, qualified as a “Florida landslide,” which is what people in the political world call anything greater than 1 point in a statewide election.

Ulvert wasn’t as specific about the 2022 goal as Rizzo was about the plan in 2019. He said the party would like to see “six-figure registration numbers” by the October deadline.

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Another difference, Diaz said, is greater coordination among different groups and a plan to keep it going in the future.

“One of the things that I think distinguishes this effort is this commitment to build a year-round infrastructure. This is not a ramp-up. And that’s what we’ve done before. We’ve essentially taken off years off and then mobilized around elections, and we ramp up the elections and then everybody takes their clipboards and their pencils and goes home,” Diaz said. “This is going to be not just a few months before Election Day, but an annual. We’re going to do this in ‘23, we’re going to do it in ‘24.”

Book appeared to acknowledge the effort announced Monday isn’t going to immediately pay off with widespread Democratic victories. Book said Democrats “see a multicycle path to win back the Florida Senate.” Multicycle means multiple election years — not something achievable in 2022.

Rich Logis, executive director of SOSS — Save Our Sunshine State, a political group focused on the impact the influx of voters from other states has on Florida, said via email that an “aggressive voter registration initiative confirms that the [Democratic] party understands that our state is a purple state, where nearly 1 out of 4 registered Floridians belong to no party.”

He said voter registration efforts by state Democratic parties in Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and Georgia led to Democratic victories in those states. “The Florida Democratic Party, at times, appears to be intimidated by the RPOF political machine; voter registration is a crucial way to show voters that the party is not afraid of the Republicans; afraid men and women can never effectively lead anyone.”

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