Mail-in voting was at an all-time high in Tuesday’s primary in Escambia County, but election experts say it’s too early to tell if voting behaviors will be permanently changed because of the coronavirus.
In Florida, mail-in ballots have typically favored Republicans in past elections, but Tuesday’s primary marked an advantage to Democratic registered voters across the state.
Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who studies American elections, said in Florida, typically more Republicans vote by mail, while Democrats prefer early in-person voting.
However, on Tuesday that pattern was reversed.
“More registered Democrats were voting by mail than Republicans, and more Republicans were voting in person early than Democrats,” McDonald said. “So that’s a big change for Florida politics.”
Statewide, more than 1.1 million Democrats voted by mail, while more than 800,000 Republican voted by mail. Looking at in-person early voting, Republicans beat out Democrats by 76,607 votes.
Locally, Republicans dominated all categories as Northwest Florida is a GOP stronghold, with fewer Democratic candidates on the ballot in Escambia County and no Democrats on the ballot in Santa Rosa County.
Republican voters accounted for two-thirds of all ballots cast in Escambia County. Democrats accounted for 31% of votes and non-party affiliated voters made up 4% of votes.
Escambia County had a record proportion of mail-in votes, with 25,466 of the 57,458 ballots casts in the primary done through mail-in ballots.
In Santa Rosa County, Republicans made up 75% of the votes cast Tuesday while Democrats were at 18% and non-party affiliated voters made up 7%, according to the unofficial returns.
Santa Rosa also saw a large share of mail-in ballots with about 11,000 of the 36,000 ballots casts.
The large majority of the mail-in ballots in both counties were Republican, but more people opted to vote in person, either early or on Tuesday in both counties.
Statewide turnout: Despite pandemic, Florida sees impressive voter turnout for primary
Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford said he expects mail-in voting to increase as he’s already received more than 56,000 requests for mail-in ballots ahead of the general election. Voters have until 10 days before the general election to request a mail-in ballot.
“I fully expect that that number is going to increase significantly between now and our request deadline,” Stafford said.
McDonald said it’s too early to say if the reversed trend statewide of Democrats voting more by mail will carry over to the general election or if it will affect stronger GOP-areas like Northwest Florida.
McDonald said the obvious explanation for the increase in mail-in ballot request is the coronavirus but anti-mail-in voting rhetoric from President Donald Trump is hurting Republican participation in the system.
“A lot of people are concerned about the coronavirus and they want to protect themselves,” McDonald said. “So they’re looking for ways to do that and voting by mail is a safe option for people. So Democrats want to do that. Republicans also want to do that, but they’re just not doing it at the same level the Democrats are.”
Trump’s campaign has walked back statements about mail-in balloting in Florida, saying the state is an exception, but McDonald said it appears that message is not working.
“The question will be then will Republicans make it up on Election Day,” McDonald said. “It does put the Trump campaign at a disadvantage because they’ll have to mobilize more around that one Election Day. The Biden campaign will be able to spread out their mobilization over a longer period of time. And once they bank a vote, they’ll be able to move on to the next voter. They won’t have to send them any more campaign literature or encourage them to vote anymore.”