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Early-voting wars won by Florida GOP

There were few medals to hand out to Republican candidates and operatives following the last election. But a special campaign ribbon with gold oak leaf clusters for distinguished service needs to be pinned to the chest of every Republican responsible for the early-voting wonders in Florida. In a nutshell, Republicans boosted the early-voting totals to record levels and won resounding victories in those early vote tallies.

There were few medals to hand out to Republican candidates and operatives following the last election. But a special campaign ribbon with gold oak leaf clusters for distinguished service needs to be pinned to the chest of every Republican responsible for the early-voting wonders in Florida. In a nutshell, Republicans boosted the early-voting totals to record levels and won resounding victories in those early vote tallies.

Florida’s performance should be one of those “best practices” examples that other states are urged to emulate.

First, a little history. Like about half the states, Florida allows early voting. I use the term “early voting” to be inclusive of both absentee and early walk-in voting that doesn’t require the filing of some excuse by voters. (Florida semi-officially agrees by designating new-style walk-in early voting as “in-person absentee voting.”)

Florida’s legislature established a standard set of rules for early in-person voting in 2004.  Walk-in voting starts 15 days before the election and ends on the second day before the election. Government offices and public libraries are approved early-voting sites. These polling places are open eight hours each weekday and eight additional hours over each weekend. During roughly the same period, absentee ballots are being mailed out and returned.

Under these rules each party has at least 100 daytime hours to round up their voters and herd them to the polls. Early voting presents an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate party organizing and mobilization prowess. In the good old days, it would have been likened to allowing a political party two hours alone in a room to stuff the ballot boxes with as many marked ballots as they could cram through the little slots. Today, a party’s ability to engineer early turnout and thereby boost its share of early voters may be the purest measure of its grassroots skill and performance.

So how did it work in Florida in 2006?

The data are astounding. Of the 4 million-plus votes cast in Florida last year, more than 30 percent were tallied BEFORE Election Day. This is going to have a huge impact on campaigns. I was consulting with several Florida campaigns that — in traditional style — backloaded advertising expenditures to a week to 10 days before Nov. 7. These campaigns unfortunately missed a lot of early voters. Next time, campaigning starts earlier.

In the state’s partisan races, the Republicans got the best of the early-voting binge. In the eight Republican-majority counties, early turnout was 37 percent of all voting, while in the 23 Democrat-controlled counties it was just 29 percent of total turnout. In the least partisan counties, where neither party has a majority, early voting was 31 percent of turnout, the same as the statewide average. So Democrats flubbed at the early-voting challenge.

The ultra-successful GOP candidate for governor, Charlie Crist, maximized his advantage in early voting. In 93 percent of Florida counties (53 of 57 counties) where we have been able to obtain 2006 results, Crist got a higher percentage of early voters than Election Day voters. In virtually every county in 2006, Crist did much better than 2004 Senate nominee Mel Martinez (R) in creating an early-voting advantage. Across the 53 counties whose results we examined, Crist averaged 5 to 6 percentage points better in early voting than he did on Election Day. By comparison, Martinez typically did about the same in early and Election Day balloting.

There are, of course, other potential explanations for these patterns that would require more rumination than this brief column allows. But it’s certain that Crist and the Florida GOP did something right in 2006 when it came to using early voting to their strategic advantage. Other states’ Republican organizations should study and learn.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.