MIAMI—On Tuesday afternoon, Gerard Legagneur walked right past the mailbox near the front of Miami Beach city hall, one of 33 early-voting and mail-in ballot drop sites in Miami-Dade, the most populous county in Florida.
Always a hotly-contested slice of political turf, the county has seen Republicans gain ground on Democrats' lead in the number of early ballots cast for the Nov. 3 presidential election in recent days. Legagneur, a Biden-Harris voter, wanted in on the action.
A stocky 44-year-old voter sporting a Captain America t-shirt, Legagneur approached a pair of poll workers in face masks and latex gloves standing underneath a black gazebo. He unzipped his book bag and pulled out his mail-in ballot. After checking his identification, one of the poll workers grabbed Legagneur’s mail-in ballot and placed it inside a metal drop box.
Legaganuer told The Daily Beast he received his mail-in ballot roughly three weeks ago and was unsure if he would go through with it.
“I’ve always voted at the polls,” Legagnuer said. “I was still debating whether or not to fill it out. I think it is pretty clear to anyone who is informed about the whole debacle with our mail system, you don’t want to take any chances.”
The previous day, Legaganeur found out that the U.S. Postal Service was recommending voters put their mail-in ballots by Tuesday to make sure the documents were delivered to election offices by next week’s election day deadlines. At the same time, he knew the Miami-Dade elections department set up a drop off location at Miami Beach City Hall when early voting began on Oct. 19.
“I had walked by a few times and saw how long the lines were, but today was the day I could do it,” Legaganeur said. “I filled out the ballot and dropped it off. It seems like it’s legit.”
If Democrats want to maintain their early voting edge over the GOP as both parties head into the election’s homestretch, the party is counting on tens of thousands more voters like Legaganeur in multiple states to personally deliver their mail-in ballots to local polling sites. By late Tuesday, advocates said, the window to safely prod people to put their votes in the mail had effectively closed.
According to the latest data from the Florida Division of Elections, registered Democrats in the state had delivered roughly 600,000 more vote-by-mail ballots than Republicans by late Tuesday. But registered GOP voters were outflanking their liberal rivals at in-person polls, accounting for approximately 316,000 more early votes there so far than Democrats, according to the Division of Elections’ statistics.
At the same time, 852,117 mail-in ballots requested by Democratic voters had not been turned in compared to 652,405 that had not been returned by Republicans. In Miami-Dade, 111,944 mail-in ballots requested by Democrats remained outstanding compared to 70,960 for Republicans.
The county had also sent out 20,342 replacement mail-in ballots to voters who claimed they did not receive it or who filled it out incorrectly.
For those vote-by-mail voters still holding on to their ballots, local party leadership and get-out the vote groups were instructing them to forget going to the post office or a mailbox. And Florida wasn’t the only state where activists and advocates were worried the time to postmark a ballot and have a say in Donald Trump’s political fate had come and gone.
Jacquelyn Kovarik is the communications director of Voces de la Frontera Action, a nonprofit organization focused on lobbying and civic engagement in Hispanic and Latino dominated wards in Milwaukee. She told The Daily Beast she wasn’t surprised the state Supreme Court had just blocked a judge’s ruling that the state should accept ballots after Election Day as long as they had been postmarked on time.
Her organization had already pivoted from telling people to mail in ballots anyway, and as the New York Times reported, Democrats in the state were now frantically urging voters to return early votes in person.
“We’ve been encouraging people not to mail in their ballots after October 23 to avoid delays and to instead drop off in the boxes or vote in person after that date,” Kovarik told The Daily Beast.
Erica Dvorachek, 44, was among those early voting in-person in Milwaukee Tuesday. But she said the state Supreme Court ruling wasn’t her motivation.
“I trust the Post Office but I think they are just overwhelmed, and I just wanted to come in and do it in person,” she said.
Perhaps understandably given the history of fraught ballot counts in South Florida, the temperature was even higher there.
Abel Iraola, Florida press secretary for the youth get-out-the-vote organization NextGen America, offered a dramatic warning on Twitter early Tuesday: “The fact that we're 7 days out means exactly one thing: if you/your friends are still holding on to ballots, DO NOT mail them back. Return them in a dropbox (at an Early Vote location) or go vote early. It is too late to risk your ballot not arriving by 7pm on Election Day.”
Iraola told The Daily Beast the tweet was by design. NextGen organizers and activists are now encouraging young voters to show up at polling sites. The shift comes after progressive-leaning electioneering groups had been pushing voters to postmark their mail-in ballots earlier this month to avoid crowding with strangers waiting in line to vote early in person and on election day. It was a strategy aimed at minimizing possible risks of contracting the coronavirus as the most pivotal election in America’s history plays out in a resurgent pandemic.
Meanwhile, Republican voters—egged on by President Donald Trump’s deliberately misleading claims about mail-in ballot fraud and getting on with their normal lives—have been casting in-person ballots in droves.
“We never went in expecting to get 90 to 100 percent of all these mail-in ballots turned in,” Iraola said. “But it does put the onus on us to do the work and get people to drop off their mail-in ballots or go vote early. We’ve also had a lot of people who requested mail-in ballots who haven’t felt comfortable sending it with the U.S. Postal Service.”
That sentiment was shared by Democratic and Republican voters interviewed by The Daily Beast. Yulia and Yves Arispe were ahead of Legagneur at the Miami Beach City Hall elections site when they dropped off their mail-in ballots. Voting in their first election since becoming U.S. citizens two years ago, the Venezuelan American couple said they filled in the bubble for the Trump-Pence ticket.
Yves Arispe said they were aware of the president’s unwarranted attacks on the mail-in ballot system, but that handing over the sealed documents to actual poll workers reassured them that their votes would be counted. “We don’t need Donald Trump to tell us about corrupted elections,” he said. “We know because we come from a place where thousands of ballots mysteriously disappear and go uncounted.”
Arispe also claimed the U.S. Postal Service failed to deliver other important pieces of mail to him and his wife. “That was the main reason we wanted to drop it off,” he said. “We didn’t want to risk not having our ballot delivered on time and go uncounted.”
Despite the Arispes’ apparently Trump-fueled mistrust of the postal service, there is recent anecdotal evidence mail delivery in the Miami area is not up to the challenge. The Miami-Dade elections department this week hand-delivered a replacement ballot to an elderly voter residing in a Jewish retirement home that went an entire week with no mail delivery, according to the Miami Herald. And on Oct. 19, the first day of early voting, South Florida’s U.S. Attorney’s Office criminally charged Miami Beach mail carrier Crystal Nicole Myree with stealing a vote-by-mail ballot, more than three-dozen political flyers, gift cards, and pre-paid debit cards.
The distrust of the postal service stretched across Miami Beach into mainland Miami. At the Lemon City Library early voting and drop off site, 37-year-old Nichole Ayres was dropping off her mail-in ballot. A petite blonde woman with a pink facemask and floral print tank top, Ayres said it was the first time she was not voting in-person. “I decided to go with a mail-in ballot because of COVID-19,” she said. “Here, everyone is wearing a mask, I didn’t have to go inside and everybody is socially distant. It was easy peasy.”
Still, she had no confidence putting her ballot in a mailbox. “I was not aware that today was the last day to put it in the mail to make sure it arrives on time,” Ayres said. “But I always planned on dropping it off. Most everyone I know has either dropped off their mail-in ballot or they are going to do it this week.”