Florida's direct mail voter outreach is too little, too late, critics say

Jeffrey Schweers Tallahassee DemocratPublished 2:08 PM EDT Sep 17, 2020With less than three weeks to go before

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With less than three weeks to go before the books are closed on who can vote Nov. 3, the Florida Division of Elections is just now mailing postcards to nearly 2.24 million Floridians who are potentially eligible but not registered.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee touted it as an “unprecedented outreach” that was a sign of commitment from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to expand voter participation.

“This bi-partisan effort is focused on enhancing the voices of all of Florida’s citizens by providing accurate and timely information about voter registration and voting options in Florida,” Lee said in a news release last Friday.

But voting rights advocates and Democratic Party officials criticize the timing of the mailing as too little, too late, since the registration deadline is Oct. 5 and the U.S. Postal Service has been experiencing mail delays as it consolidates and shuts down mail sites.

To them, it's just another example of foot-dragging by the DeSantis administration when it comes to increasing voter registration.

”These postcards should have been sent sooner, and this initiative should not be their only effort to increase access to the ballot box,” Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said. “We would like to see the Division of Elections take more steps to expand early voting and increase the number of voting locations all across the state." 

More of our coverage: After Florida was hacked in 2016 election, state got millions for election security. Here's how it was spent

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Florida, Lee had told voter groups who engage in voter registration, education and outreach that the postcards would go out around midsummer, said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“The state has historically not mailed out voter registration cards," Brigham said during a telephone press briefing Thursday that included All Voting is Local, Common Cause and the NAACP. "We applaud the state for finally doing it, but we are fearful it's come too late."

The four groups called the press briefing to urge Gov. Ron DeSantis to use his executive powers to increase the number of drop boxes, expand early voting and allow election officials to accept ballots received after Election Day as long as they are postmarked on or before Nov. 3.

In an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida earlier this month, Lee said the state had always intended to send out the postcards between the primary and general elections, because that's when potential voters would be most engaged, according to the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a multi-state network Florida joined in December that helps states keep their voter rolls up to date. 

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Florida is among 30 states and the District of Columbia that belong to the ERIC consortium, which was created in 2012 by the Pew Charitable Trusts to help states cross-check voter registration data to eliminate duplicate and dead voters, among other things.

“From the very beginning this was the plan,” Lee said. “ERIC recommended sending the mailer out between the primary and general election.”

That doesn't give those potentially eligible voters a lot of time to fill out their applications, Brigham said. "The deadline looms closer, and recent postal service slowdowns may delay things."

The primary was Aug. 18, which means the state waited nearly a month to send out the postcards, cutting the window in half for residents to receive the cards and register.

Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews told county elections supervisors in an email last Friday that the state had just begun printing and mailing out the cards and that the mailers would go out in three randomized batches this week. 

The postcard states, in English and Spanish, that records show recipients are eligible but not registered to vote. They are instructed to go online, to RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov, check their registration status and then register if they are not already in the system. 

It also tells them they can vote by mail, at any early voting site or at the polls on Election Day. Eligible voters are those who are at least 18, Florida residents and U.S. citizens. They must swear or affirm to all eligibility requirements.

State election officials have not replied to questions about why they waited until three weeks before the registration deadline to send out the postcards or why they are sending out to only about half the potentially eligible voters ERIC originally identified.

"We were told it would be 4 to 6 million," said Brad Ashwell, Florida director for All Voting is Local. "We are scratching our heads over why so few cards went out."

Using ERIC data and information from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Matthews said, the state identified reliable addresses for nearly 2.24 million eligible but unregistered (EBU) voters.

"Addresses associated with an EBU were removed if the person was identified as deceased, if it was an out-of-state address, and if it was an address for a Department of Corrections facility or a federal prison in Florida," Matthews said in her email to county elections supervisors last week.

More: Florida joins multi-state voter verification system, Gov. Ron DeSantis announces

And: Florida's lack of transparency about election security funds aided alleged coverup, watchdog says

When DeSantis announced in August 2019 that Florida would be joining ERIC — seven years after election supervisors and voter advocacy groups first requested the state join — he said the only reason the state would be reaching out to eligible but unregistered voters was because ERIC required it.

He also questioned whether it would get much of a response.

"It's still a minimal effort by the state," Ashwell said. "They should be doing more to reach out year round."

But even if only 5% register as a result of this mailing, that's nearly 112,000 new voters — close to the 113,000 vote margin President Trump had over Hillary Clinton in Florida in 2016.

"Any boost to the voter registration numbers is good given the historic low voter registration this election cycle," Ashwell said.

Contact Jeff Schweers at jschweers@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

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