Early voting starts in pivotal state Florida

State is largest prize, with 29 Electoral College votes

In this must-win state for US President Donald Trump, lines snaked for blocks on the first day of early voting, long-standing traditions were upended, and Senator Kamala Harris encouraged voters at a drive-in rally to blare horns.

Both campaigns watched nervously: once again, Florida goes into the final weeks of a presidential campaign as an anxiety-driving toss-up.

Voters seemed as anxious as the campaigns on Monday. Some fretted that Joe Biden would import socialism, others worried Trump would fail to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, and still others predicted that violence would erupt in the streets if the election results are contested.

The state is critical for reasons both practical and psychological: without its 29 electoral votes, Trump would have tremendous difficulty finding a path to victory. And because the state processes its mail-in and early ballots in advance and counts them quickly, Florida’s near-final results likely will be known on election night, long before slower states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

As in other states so far this year, voting seems headed for potential records. Even before early voting began Monday in 50 of the state’s counties, more than 2.5 million Floridians had voted by mail, representing more than a quarter of the total votes cast four years ago.

Registered Democrats have cast nearly a half million more of those ballots than Republicans, according to figures compiled by Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC, and Democratic data firm Hawkfish.

That doesn’t have Biden’s campaign at ease, however, despite a small lead in state polls. Republicans have vastly outpaced Democrats on new voter registrations in the state since March.

“We are not taking our foot off the gas, and I expect a surge to the finish,” Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said.

Democrats, who are as anxious to avoid overconfidence as the Trump campaign is to eschew defeatism, cite a host of unknowns. The flood of mail ballots cast on their side, for example, could be offset by Trump voters who heeded the president’s advice not to vote by mail and are holding their fire until Election Day, said Steve Schale, who ran the Barack Obama campaign in Florida in 2008 and now heads Unite the Country.

“There’s a lot more we don’t know than we know,” Schale said. “This is uncharted territory for everybody.”

Everything is upside down, Schale said. Usually the Republican Party is extremely disciplined about returning mail ballots, and Democrats have a tougher time.

“Donald Trump basically decided to take a match and just torch 20 years of Republican work down here,” Schale said. “Voters who have voted by mail for 20 years now don’t have confidence because of Trump’s tweets.”

Voters in southern Florida lined up wearing masks and at a respectful social distance for the start of in-person voting.

At a Miami Beach polling station, Jackeline Maurice, a writer in her 40s, was excitedly snapping selfies with an “I voted” sticker on after casting her ballot for Biden.

“I’ve been waiting four years to vote,” she said.

Maurice said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the 77-year-old Democrat’s prospects.

In nearby Hialeah, some 200 people, mostly Cuban Americans, were in line to vote at a library, including Ulysses Liriano.

The 51-year-old said he was voting for the president because “Trump has made lots of changes for us in our country,” notably with the economy.

Nationwide, Biden leads Trump by 8.9 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls, and the Democrat has more modest leads in several battleground states.

The Florida race is tightening down to a knife edge; statewide polls show Biden ahead by an average of 1.4 percentage points – compared to 4.5 points less than two weeks ago.

The increasingly diverse state is a bellwether, having voted for the candidate who ultimately became president in 18 of the past 20 elections – including Republican Trump in 2016.

Biden, fresh off two events in North Carolina – another state Democrats want to flip – dispatched Harris to Florida for a drive-in rally in Orlando and a voter mobilisation event in Jacksonville.

The events are key for Democratic efforts in larger, more urban areas to offset the advantages Trump has in smaller counties across Florida.

Harris told Orlando voters that the nation was grappling with multiple crises linked to the pandemic, what she called “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of America”.

Biden, who faces off with Trump Thursday in their

, echoed the need for change.

“Together, we can put an end to the last four years of darkness, division, and chaos,” he tweeted. “We can unite, mend our wounds, and begin to heal.”

The presidential debate commission announced Monday that the candidates’ microphones would be muted while their opponent is speaking for his allotted two minutes per question, and then unmuted for open discussion.

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