In their eagerness to suppress minority votes, in particular the surge of Democratic voters who used mail-in ballots for the first time in 2020 due to the pandemic, Republican lawmakers in Florida rushed to pass a law that placed obstacles in the path of absentee voting. This included a requirement that anyone who wants to vote by mail needs to re-register every election cycle, meaning every two years. It also drastically curtailed the number of ballot drop boxes in every county.
The party's calculus was fairly straightforward: The new law will force many minorities to vote in-person, probably in long lines, whether during early voting or on Election Day, and therefore fewer will cast ballots.
But could this plan backfire?
Many Republicans who use mail-in ballots are elderly or are military personnel. A substantial number of them may not realize that they have to re-apply for their 2022 mail-in ballots, wrongly assuming they had just done so in 2020. Over the past two decades, the GOP has invested millions of dollars in voter education and outreach as Florida's electorate shifted to mail-in balloting. They targeted senior and military voters about how to use absentee ballots and to get them used to it. In this effort, they succeeded wildly, with GOP voters taking advantage of mail-in voting far more than Democrats all the way up to the 2020 election. The new law requiring reapplication before 2022, however, may cause many of these GOP voters to miss the new deadlines and force them to vote in person—a practice to which many are unaccustomed.
On the other hand, Democrats—particularly minority voters—are quite used to voting in person and to the long wait times this often entails. When President Obama carried the state in 2008, mainly through a get-out-the-vote campaign that took advantage of early voting, the GOP predictably responded by curtailing early voting, resulting in six- or seven-hour long waits during the 2012 election. Orlando Sentinel reported that over 200,000 people did not vote in that election because of those wait times. After polls showed 70 percent of Floridians wanted early voting expanded because of these wait times, the legislature relented and reversed itself.
Before the pandemic struck, Democrats tried for years to expand mail-in voting to avoid these types of shenanigans from the GOP, but there was strong resistance among their voters, mostly because many minorities understandably distrust the system and wanted to see their ballots handed in and accepted in person. With the passage of the new bill, many Democrats intuitively understand that once again the system is trying to suppress their right to vote, and they could return in big numbers for in-person Early and Election Day voting. Meanwhile, and especially for an off-year election, many elderly and military GOP voters may find a surprise when they aren't automatically re-approved to vote by mail.
The Washington Post reported that many GOP operatives were actually afraid to publicly voice concerns about the bill backfiring for fear of inviting anger from their own supporters and party leadership. One GOP source, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the Post, "Now, you'll have military personnel who might not think they have to request a ballot who won't get it. And we've got senior voters who have health concerns or just don't want to go out. They might not know the law has changed, and they might not get a ballot, because they're not engaged."
Add to that Trump's damaging and enduring rhetoric that the 2020 election was fraudulent and stolen from him, and many of his own base may mentally check out of the 2022 midterms, especially with their leader not on the ticket. Indeed, we saw this play out in the Georgia special election in January: As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, turnout among Trump-leaning Northern Georgia counties fell by far more than Biden-leaning urban ones, either because Trump was not on the ballot or because he continued to message that the election was rigged and caused his own base to stay home as a result.
Efforts such as Florida's new voter suppression law were intended in part to reassure GOP voters that elections going forward will be fair and fraud-free. After all, thanks to misinformation from Trump and the GOP itself, some 70 percent of GOP voters still believe the Big Lie about a stolen election. It would be truly ironic if GOP-controlled states like Florida were so intent on blunting new Democratic voting patterns that they inadvertently disenfranchise whole swathes of their own voters through new restrictions.
In the end, with mail-in voting taking a hit, Democrats will likely still turn up in person to vote in Florida. Whether elderly GOP voters do the same remains to be seen.