Early September seems like a good time to take a look at the challenges Democrats face in the largest swing state. Dexter Filkins obliges in his New Yorker article, “Who Gets to Vote in Florida? With the election hanging in the balance, Republican leaders continue a long fight over voting rights.” As Filkins sets the stage:
For candidates in the coming Presidential election, Florida presents a singular opportunity and a vexing challenge. While other big states, such as Texas and California, reliably go to Republicans or Democrats, Florida is unpredictable. Polling suggests that Joe Biden could plausibly lose there and win the election, though the state’s twenty-nine electoral votes would surely make a victory easier; Trump, by most analyses, cannot win without them.
Stretching eight hundred miles from end to end, Florida encompasses the Deep South counties of the panhandle and the urban centers of Miami, Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale, where Jewish and Latino voters predominate. There are growing Puerto Rican enclaves around Orlando, and main-line Republican areas in Naples and Tampa, linked demographically and culturally with the Midwest. This mixture creates an almost perfectly divided electorate. Statewide races are often decided by a few thousand votes, out of millions cast.
Even though Florida is closely split, Republican leaders dominate state politics; since 1999, they have controlled both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. One key to their success has been restricting access to the polls. Lower turnout, particularly among Black voters, has usually favored their side. “Older and more affluent voters tend to be more conservative, and they tend to vote more often,” Daniel Smith, a professor of politics at the University of Florida, told me. That fact has motivated a relentless campaign to tamp down voter turnout. The most overt efforts were hindered by the Voting Rights Act, which until 2013 obligated places with a history of racial discrimination to get Justice Department approval before making major changes in electoral laws. But the less conspicuous efforts have had momentous effects. In 2000, they arguably helped decide the race for the Presidency.
Filkins goes on the flesh out the sordid history of voter suppression in the Sunshine State, where as little sunshine as possible is cast by Republicans on their ballot-counting and voter-verification processes. Looking toward the 2020 presidential election, Filkins notes,
This November marks the first Presidential election since 1980 in which the Republican National Committee will not be bound by a court decree that has tightly limited its activities around voting sites. The decree arose from a Democratic lawsuit charging that, in a New Jersey governor’s race, off-duty police officers, some carrying guns and wearing armbands that read “National Ballot Security Task Force,” had intimidated Black voters. “We fully expect Trump volunteers to be at every polling place in the state on Election Day,” Peñalosa said.
Polling averages show Biden leading Trump in Florida at this point, and with no voter suppression and an honest count, there would be every reason to bet on Biden winning a popular majority in the state, and an Electoral College majority. As it is, however, Democrats have to bring their ‘A game’ over the next 8 weeks to check these twin threats.