| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
TALLAHASSEE – Following a closing blitz of campaign stops by President Donald Trump, Democrat Joe Biden and their allies, Americans went to the polls Tuesday with Florida and a handful of other battleground states pivotal to deciding a pandemic shadowed presidential election marked by record numbers of voters.
With an unprecedented 9.1 million Floridians casting ballots by mail and in early voting before Election Day, voters holding out for old school, in-person balloting had their say Tuesday.
With clear, mild weather across the state, turnout was described as strong and steady, with no serious hiccups reported at the state’s almost 5,000 polling places.
Even before polls opened, Florida had reached a 63% turnout level with early and mail-in balloting. Four years ago, the presidential contest drew 75% turnout, and this year’s contest was on track to surpass that.
“All precincts opened on time, and voters are currently casting ballots,” Secretary of State Laurel Lee, the state’s top elections official, said at a midday briefing with reporters.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has activated a number of Florida National Guard soldiers and pre-positioned them around the state to help local law enforcement “out of an abundance of caution,” she said.
Meanwhile, Lee said the state was in touch with the U.S. Postal Service to assure that all mail-in ballots will be delivered before the state’s 7 p.m. Tuesday deadline. Vote-by-mail and early voting is already being counted.
“We do know that much of that work has already been completed,” Lee said.
But Lee declined to answer when asked if she thought Florida results Tuesday night would be final enough to declare which candidate won the state. State results will be on Floridaelectionwatch.gov
Across the nation, voting also was at record levels before Election Day. More than 100 million Americans had cast ballots before polls even opened, 73% of the number who had voted in the 2016 contest.
In Florida, lines were reported at polling locations around the state Tuesday morning as polls opened.
In Jacksonville, about 40 people were waiting at one precinct, while in St. Petersburg, a line of voters snaked down the sidewalk outside a library.
In Sarasota, 11 people stood in line at the Southside Baptist Church voting location shortly after polls opened. All were dressed warmly for the crisp morning.
Sarasota businessman Alli Elhage, 53, voted for Trump.
“Politicians don’t get much done, businessmen do,” he said.
Retired Sarasota teacher Terry Langlois, 73, cast his ballot for Biden. Trump’s “been a disaster,” he said.
Langlois said he spent 20 years teaching emotionally impaired children and “that’s why I understand Trump.”
But Desantis, who helped amplify the Trump campaign by appearing frequently with the president in their shared home state, forecast a victory during a morning appearance on Fox & Friends.
“I think you’re going to see a decisive Republican advantage today and just think it’s going to wipe out the very small advantage that Democrats have going into Election Day,” DeSantis said. “People in Florida have that opportunity, stay in that line, vote. Your voice will matter. I think it’s going to be a good election day for the president.”
Among the 9.1 million Floridians whose ballots were already cast by Election Day, Republicans led Democrats in early voting but in mail-in, the trend was reversed.
All told, by Election Day 115,416 more registered Democrats had cast ballots – but 1.9 million no party affiliated Floridians had also voted, according to elections records. The direction these NPA voters go may ultimately hold the key to which candidate carries the state and its coveted 29 electoral votes.
Four years ago, Democrat Hillary Clinton went into Election Day with a roughly 240,000-vote lead, but narrowly lost because Republicans turned out in much larger numbers than Democrats in the final day of balloting.
Trump carried Florida on his way to the White House in 2016 by 112,911 votes, a 1.2% edge. And polls heading into Tuesday showed the Trump-Biden contest effectively deadlocked.
The coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered the race for the White House. In Florida, the election brought Floridians Trump boat parades, “ridin’ with Biden” car rallies, “no knock” voter canvassing and a host of other political improvisations.
In a state where more than 800,000 people have been infected with the virus and almost 17,000 Floridians have died, the campaigns raced toward the finish line in starkly different fashions.
Trump held his mega-, mostly mask-less rallies, including a late-night event in Miami that stretched into the early hours Monday, in defiance of the county’s midnight curfew.
While Trump whipped up crowds in the thousands, Biden and his allies, including former President Barack Obama, who also came to Miami on Monday, held rallies with observers confined to their cars – a horn honk serving as applause.
Still, voter turnout is breaking new ground, and if roughly 3 million more Floridians go to the polls or submit their mail-in ballots Tuesday, Florida would crash through the 83% presidential year turnout mark set in 1992.
While surveys of voters showed the race in Florida tight, keeping with the state’s history of elections decided by the narrowest of margins, the state led the nation in TV advertising.
More than a quarter billion dollars was spent by the campaigns here – Biden and his allies spending the most – and Floridians for weeks have watched the candidates slug it out in 30-second spots as they competed for what was seen as the nation’s biggest electoral prize.
Most electoral maps showed Trump needing to win Florida to have any chance for a second term. In addition, there’s also history hovering over Trump – with no Republican ever winning the presidency without Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.
In dealing with 9.1 million vote-by-mail and early votes, elections officials, unlike in some key battleground states including Pennsylvania, have already begun ballot counting.
“We do know that much of that work has already been completed,” said Lee, the secretary of state.
If Florida’s election night returns showed a Biden win in the state, Trump’s chances for victory diminish.
But a Trump win in Florida will turn the focus to other states – Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina and, of course, the potentially decisive Pennsylvania – with armies of lawyers on both sides ready for possible legal challenges that could slow the race’s settling for days, or longer.
Zac Anderson, political editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, contributed to this report.