MIAMI — For months, President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden have strategized on voter turnout, election officials have braced for an autumn like no other, and the U.S. Postal Service has vowed to be ready to handle a record number of mail ballots going out in the nation’s largest swing state.

Now it’s time for millions of Floridians to vote.

Starting Thursday, and continuing for seven days, more than 4.7 million domestic mail ballots will go out to Florida voters, marking the unofficial start of the state’s marathon 40-day election. More than 1 million of those ballots will be mailed in Miami-Dade and Broward counties alone — more than double the ballots requested by South Florida voters in those counties in 2016.

That front-loading of the election places unprecedented emphasis on the weeks before Election Day on Nov. 3. It will test Florida Democrats’ pandemic-driven decision to go all-in on mail voting, Republicans’ ability to turn out votes through a voting method attacked repeatedly by the president and the ability of an embattled United States Postal Service to handle the load.

“It feels like this both arrived quickly and took a very long time,” Josh Geise, the Florida state director and national vote-by-mail director for the progressive nonprofit America Votes, said of the start of voting. “It’s very exciting.”

If Thursday’s mail ballot release sounds the starting gun to the Florida ballot chase, it’s Trump who will set the pace out of the gate.

The president — who has taken to describing Florida’s mail voting program as absentee voting, though there’s no difference — is holding a Thursday night campaign rally in Jacksonville, a purple metropolis where he’d intended to host the Republican National Convention before the coronavirus pandemic foiled his plans. That rally will be followed by a short trip to Miami, taking place as he considers nominating Hialeah native Barbara Lagoa to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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“The importance of Florida in this election and particularly to President Trump can’t be overstated,” said Susie Wiles, Trump’s top campaign adviser in Florida. “As absentee ballots begin to go out, having the president visit Florida is an important signal of the way the campaign views this state.”

Though Trump has attacked mail voting, he is a Florida mail voter. And mail voting has been an effective weapon employed by Florida Republicans for years, helping them win tight races by securing votes in high numbers ahead of Election Day.

Trump’s campaign understands the need to motivate Republican mail voters in an election where some forecast as much as half the vote may come through the U.S. Postal Service. But this year, Florida Democrats are hoping to flip the vote-by-mail script.

Spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and local supervisors of elections seeking to avoid potentially risky Election Day lines, Democrats and progressive organizations have registered nearly 2.2 million Democratic mail voters — about 700,000 more than Republicans. When the pandemic struck, Florida Democrats and progressive organizations shifted their focus from voter registration to vote-by-mail registration.

In sheer registration numbers, Democrats still lead Republicans this year, though that edge has been slightly reduced from four years ago. As of the Aug. 18 primary election, there were 5.167 million Democrats registered in the state and 4.927 million Republicans.

Democrats have held up their mail ballot lead as a major advantage over Trump in a swing state with a crucial 29 electoral college votes. And they just got a massive spending boost from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who announced 10 days ago that he would spend $100 million backing Biden in Florida. But whether Democrats can close the loop and get all those mail voters to cast their ballots for Biden — or cast them at all — remains to be seen, given that Biden’s campaign has mostly forgone traditional on-the-ground campaigning during the pandemic.

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“We’re going to make sure we’re communicating with them on the phone, on radio, on TV, even with banners at bus stations,” said Jackie Lee, Biden’s senior advisor in Florida. “We’re going to make sure they know how to get their ballot, the ease of getting their ballot back in, and where to find voting information … and we’re going to make it easy, whether it be through the language they speak or the region they’re in.”

Another source of stress for Democrats: cuts to the United States Postal Service.

Amid warnings that the reduction of sorting machines and new budget-driven cuts could hamper the mail service’s ability to deliver vote-by-mail ballots, Democrats and Republicans are encouraging voters to fill out and return their mail ballots as soon as they get them or — once early voting begins — to drop them off at secure boxes located outside early voting centers.

In a statement issued this week to the Miami Herald, the USPS said it is advising mail-in voters to request ballots “as early as their jurisdiction allows,” and that ballots be completed at least one week prior to their state’s deadline. In Florida, the deadline to request that an election office send a ballot through the mail is 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24. The deadline to get the ballot back to election offices is 7 p.m. local time on election night.

“The United States Postal Service is fully committed to fulfilling our role in the electoral process when public policy makers choose to utilize us as a part of their election system, and to delivering election mail in a timely manner,” the USPS said in a statement. “To ensure that individuals who wish to use the mail to vote can do so successfully, election officials and voters should keep in mind the time required for both legs of a ballot’s delivery through the mail — to the voter and back to election officials.”

The release of mail ballots won’t just put pressure on campaigns to motivate voters to fill them out and return them. It will also test the abilities of local supervisors of elections to process record numbers of mail ballots.

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According to state data, Broward County’s elections office will send 465,000 mail ballots Thursday. Miami-Dade will follow suit Oct. 1 — the last day to send already-requested mail ballots — by distributing another 540,000. In Palm Beach County, about 385,000 mail ballots will go out Thursday, according to supervisor of elections Wendy Link. That’s more than triple the county’s tally in 2016.

The process of printing and processing mail ballots is time and labor intensive.

“Just in the last August primary, we had more ballots cast by mail than we did in any election in Broward County history,” said Steve Vancore, a spokesman for the Broward Supervisor of Elections.

Florida’s election supervisors, many of whom have encouraged voters to vote by mail rather than risk COVID-19 exposure by voting in person amid crowds, are allowed to begin processing votes cast by mail more than three weeks prior to Election Day. But tabulating mail ballots can still be complicated if large numbers of voters drop off their mail ballots in person on Election Day. About 14,000 Broward County voters did that during the August primary.

Vancore said the county has more than doubled its staff from the primary to help process mail ballots as they’re received, with a goal of counting every ballot that comes in each day.

Supervisors are also hoping to limit the number of rejected mail ballots by making sure mail voters return their ballots on time and avoid signature-related mistakes or allow enough time to fix mistakes should they occur. One way they can do that is to place their mail ballots in a secure drop box outside in-person early voting centers that open about two weeks prior to Election Day.

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“Get it back early, and sign the ballot,” he said, a frequent message from election supervisors who say the most common error leading to the rejection of mail ballots is forgetting to sign the envelope as required.

Craig Latimer, the supervisor of elections in Tampa Bay’s Hillsborough County and the president of a statewide supervisors group, said election departments have prepared for the shift in voting patterns. His own employees are working extra hours, he said, to ship out 355,000 ballots Thursday instead of the county’s typical 200,000.

“This is just a matter of ramping up the volume,” Latimer said. “It’s nothing new.”

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©2020 Miami Herald

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