TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Floridians have already cast more than 76,000 ballots in the presidential election as of Wednesday morning and the campaigns for Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are scrambling to reach out to 2 million other voters who have requested absentee ballots.
More than three weeks before voters go to the polls Nov. 6, the battle for early votes is in full force in this state that will be crucial to winning the White House.
"Almost our entire volunteer army in the state is being converted now into an absentee ballot chase and an early voter notification," said Brett Doster, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist working with Romney. "If you can get a vote cast today that's in the bank, that's another voter you don't have to spend money on trying to message."
While campaigns have always encouraged supporters to request absentee ballots, Florida's new voting laws have shortened the in-person early voting period from 14 to eight days, a decision which some election officials say will create longer lines and possibly effect turnout. So this election there's an even greater incentive to ask supporters to vote by absentee ballot.
Florida's 29 electoral votes are more than 10 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency, the most of any state that's considered a toss-up.
So far, Romney's campaign has a slight edge in absentee voting. Republicans have requested 894,544 absentee ballots and returned 33,143, compared to 820,865 requested and 31,305 returned by Democrats, according to the Romney campaign. Independent and minor party voters have requested 374,551 ballots and returned 12,083. The state Democratic Party has numbers that reflect the same ratio of requested and returned ballots. The state only releases the information to political parties, elections officials and candidates until the election is over.
At the same point before the 2008 election, Democrats lagged even further in absentee ballot requests, with Republicans requesting nearly 730,000 ballots compared to just more than 517,000 for Democrats, according to figures provided by the Obama campaign. Traditionally, Republicans have voted absentee in larger numbers than Democrats, but Obama still won the majority of votes cast before Election Day in 2008.
Early voting at the polls begins Oct. 27 and runs through Nov. 3.
Obama's campaign is aggressively pushing what it calls its "Vote Now!" effort. It's telling supporters to request an absentee ballot in person and then fill it out and return it on the spot. It laid the groundwork by contacting elections' officials to ensure that they'd allow people to absentee vote in person. Most of Florida's 67 counties allow it.
"This is going to be the first big statewide push for in-person absentee voting," said Obama campaign spokesman Eric Jotkoff. "Now that the voter registration deadline has passed, our volunteer army is shifting to educate Floridians on the several different options of how Floridians can vote."
Leon County elections supervisor Ion Sancho said the process takes slightly longer than traditional voting, but it also guarantees the ballot will count rather than get lost or delayed in the mail. It also ensures that the voter signature is checked on the spot. Occasionally, mailed ballots aren't counted if signatures don't match what election officials have on file.
"They can just get the ballot, go over to the privacy booth, mark it, put it in the privacy envelope, bring it back to the counter and go home," Sancho said. "One hundred percent of these in-person absentee ballots count."
In Seminole County, election supervisor Michael Ertel said he doesn't allow the ballots to be filled out right at the counter.
"We make the voters actually walk out of our building, otherwise what we're creating is a quasi-early voting center," he said. "If they want to do it in the parking lot, great, but we're not a modified early voting station."
He has noticed an increase in absentee voting, saying ballot requests have been about 25 percent higher than they were in 2008. And he said it's clear the Obama campaign is more actively promoting in-person absentee voting.
The campaign was holding events around the state Wednesday to encourage that. Doster, though, said it's also something the Romney campaign is encouraging.
"I don't think there's too many differences between the techniques and the tactics being used by their side and our side, it's just a matter of execution," he said.
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