Republican operatives worth their salt remember well the Sunshine State’s 1988 U.S. Senate race.

Floridians went to sleep that Nov. 8 believing that Democrat Buddy MacKay had prevailed with a slim lead of less than one percentage point. The television networks had called the race for him. The St. Petersburg Times published a story the next day declaring that Republican Connie Mack had “failed to win big” in crucial conservative strongholds Lee and Pinellas counties.

Then the last of the absentee ballots came in. They went 3 to 1 for Mack, delivering him a 34,518-vote victory.

“It was legendary,” said David Johnson, a longtime GOP consultant in the state. “The Republicans had done such a good job with absentee ballots that they eked out a narrow win.”

So began a long and fruitful relationship between the GOP and absentee voting. Republican campaigns invested millions of dollars encouraging their supporters to cast ballots by mail. State legislators passed laws making it easier. Over the ensuing decades, GOP voters in Florida became so comfortable with casting ballots by mail that in 2020, nearly 35 percent of those who turned out did so, according to state data compiled by University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith.

Virtually every narrow Republican victor of the past generation — and there have been many, including two of the state’s current top officeholders, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott — owes their victory, at least in part, to mail voting.

Now, some Florida Republicans are reacting with alarm after the GOP-dominated state legislature, with DeSantis’s support, passed a far-reaching bill Thursday night that puts new restrictions on the use of mail ballots.

Not only are GOP lawmakers reversing statutes that their own predecessors put in place, but they are also curtailing a practice that millions of state Republicans use, despite former president Donald Trump’s relentless and baseless claims that it invites fraud.

Even as Democrats and voting rights advocates accuse the proponents of Senate Bill 90 of attempting to suppress the votes of people of color, these Republicans say their own political fortunes are in peril, too.

The potential fallout in the key swing state illustrates how the Republican Party is hurting itself in its rush to echo Trump’s false allegations, they said.

“Donald Trump attempted to ruin a perfectly safe and trusted method of voting,” said one longtime Republican consultant in the state who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.

The Florida legislature on April 29 approved a measure that curbs mail-in voting and the use of drop boxes. (Reuters)

“The main law that we pass when we pass election bills in Florida is the law of unintended consequences,” he said. Now, he added, the GOP must live with the result.

A sharp reversal

State Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican from Sarasota, the chairman of the state GOP and a chief proponent of Senate Bill 90, said the measure was necessary to shore up public confidence in elections — something both Republican lawmakers and their supporters demanded.

“It’s not going to hurt anybody, Republicans or Democrats,” Gruters said in an interview Sunday. “People are going to understand the changes that were made long before another election comes around. People will have a full grasp of what we’re dealing with.”

He added: “My goal is to make it as easy as possible to vote and as hard as possible to cheat, period.”

In future years, Gruters said, he would like to expand early in-person voting — a method that was embraced more broadly by Republicans last fall.

This year’s bill restricts the use of drop boxes, adds hurdles to voting by mail and prohibits actions that could influence those standing in line to vote, which voting rights advocates said will probably discourage nonpartisan groups from offering food or water to voters as they wait under the hot Florida sun.

Together, the provisions compound hurdles for voters, critics said, because the curtailment of mail voting will probably lead to longer lines on Election Day and during early in-person voting, particularly in urban communities that already tend to face long wait times to vote.

Senate Bill 90 requires voters to reapply for mail ballots every two-year election cycle, rather than every two cycles — or four years — as current law allows. The legislation prohibits mobile drop boxes, and it requires local election supervisors to staff all drop boxes and to allow ballots to be dropped in them only during early-voting hours. Supervisors who leave a drop box accessible outside those hours are subject to a civil penalty of $25,000.

The state’s association of county election supervisors opposed the measure, which also limits who may turn in a voter’s ballot, allowing only certain family members to do so or limiting individuals to turning in the ballots of just two nonfamily members.

The bill marks a sharp reversal for the state GOP, which invested heavily in absentee voting in the past three decades.

After the seminal 1988 election, Republicans began working to broaden the appeal of mail voting. They reached out to the elderly in particular, expanding their electorate by teaching low-propensity voters how easy it could be to vote from home.

They established ballot “chase” programs, tapping public voter files to call Republican voters they knew had requested ballots and remind them to turn their votes in.

“Vote-by-mail programs for our statewide campaigns would cost $4 [million] to $5 million in the 1990s,” Johnson said. “It was a lot of money. But it was not at all unheard of.”

The GOP also began changing state law to make it easier to vote by mail. In 2002, the state ended its absentee voting system, intended only for voters unable to vote in person on Election Day, and replaced it with a no-excuses vote-by-mail system, one of the first states to do so.

A few years later, Republicans passed legislation creating a mail-ballot request list, allowing voters who request a ballot once to automatically receive mail ballots for two subsequent election cycles. The measure came at the request of county supervisors of elections, who had become inundated with mail-ballot requests each election. Republicans seized on the idea to eliminate a step for voters and boost turnout during off-year elections.

“For smaller elections, they just ship the ballot, which, for me, works great,” said Marianne Combs, 58, a nurse from Destin, in the Florida Panhandle, who voted for Trump by mail last year. “I’ve got good intentions of going to the polls when it’s a lesser election, but I don’t always get there.”

Even as recently as 2018, Republicans passed a law requiring a mail-ballot drop box at every early-voting site in the state.

“That was before their leader’s attack on mail balloting,” said Ion Sancho, a former election supervisor for Leon County, home of Tallahassee.

As Republicans worked to boost their advantage in mail voting, they sought to rein in the use of early in-person voting hours, a method Democrats had embraced.

After Barack Obama won Florida in 2008, largely by encouraging early in-person voting among Black voters, GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee, backed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, passed legislation dramatically reducing how many early-voting hours local election officials were allowed to offer.

“Fifty-four percent of African American votes that year were cast at in-person early-voting sites,” Sancho said. It was hard not to conclude that Scott wanted to “frustrate” the Black voters who had chosen to vote that way, he said.

The law backfired, however. After Election Day 2012, with widespread TV reports of elderly Black voters standing in seven-hour lines in Miami, more than 70 percent of Floridians said in polls that they wanted early voting expanded again. The legislature relented and reversed itself.

Steve Schale, a longtime Democratic consultant in Florida who worked on Obama’s campaign in the state in 2008 and 2012, said he tried to boost mail voting when it became clear how successful Republicans were at it, but the effort failed.

Black voters in particular said in polls that they didn’t like mail voting; after enduring decades of racially motivated voter suppression, they said they wanted to see their ballot fed into the scanner with their own eyes.

Over the past decade, more Democrats have taken to the practice of voting by mail, cutting into the Republican advantage. But as recently as 2018, that advantage still existed, albeit more narrowly, with 1,080,000 Republicans and 1,027,000 Democrats voting by mail that year. That was still a meaningful gap: In the U.S. Senate race that year, Scott defeated incumbent Bill Nelson (D) by 10,033 votes, and in the contest for governor, DeSantis’s winning margin over Andrew Gillum (D) was 32,463.

Trump goes on attack

Then came 2020.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck, election officials across the country began promoting and expanding mail voting to allow voters to cast ballots safely.

Trump seized on the changes as part of a long-running effort to shake public confidence in the outcome of the White House race.

“MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE,” the president tweeted on May 28, one of dozens of such attacks that he unleashed throughout the year. “IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY. WE CAN NEVER LET THIS TRAGEDY BEFALL OUR NATION.”

On June 22, he tweeted: “Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history - unless this stupidity is ended. We voted during World War One & World War Two with no problem, but now they are using Covid in order to cheat by using Mail-Ins!”

Florida Republicans were aghast, according to several political strategists who described private reactions.

“It was comical to watch Trump light on fire 20 years of Republican work and tens of millions of Republican investment — literally lighting a match to it,” Schale said. “Every time he sent a tweet out, I’d get a text from a Republican operative here in Florida with an eye-roll emoji.”

Republicans did their best to parse the president’s words and assure their voters that mail voting was safe in Florida. Gruters, an avid Trump supporter, told the Orlando Sentinel last July that the president was opposed only to “universal” mail balloting — when states hold mail-only elections — even though Trump had specifically criticized no-excuses mail voting, such as in Florida, where anyone may choose, without providing a reason, to vote by mail.

Florida Republicans are “100% in lockstep with the president that we’re against the universal vote-by-mail system,” Gruters told the news outlet. “[But] people that feel uncomfortable with voting in person, even though we’re months away, anybody has that right to request an absentee ballot. And the Florida Republicans have dominated in years past.”

The party also sent fliers to Republican voters assuring them that Trump supported absentee voting. “Absentee ballots are fine,” one flier read, quoting the beginning of a tweet from the president that blurred out the portion of his message that read: “Not so with Mail-ins. Rigged Election!!!”

There is no difference between absentee and mail voting in Florida.

In the end, Democrats saw a more dramatic surge in early in-person and mail voting over those four years than Republicans did, but despite Trump’s attacks, Republicans also voted by mail in higher numbers than during the previous presidential election. In 2020, 34.5 percent of Republicans voted by mail, up from 29.9 percent four years earlier, according to data compiled by the University of Florida’s Smith.

The shift is starkly visible among Black voters, who overcame their mistrust of mail voting in droves last year, with 552,000 choosing to vote that way, compared with just 245,000 four years earlier, according to Smith’s analysis. Black voters overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates.

Still, many Republicans said they stuck with mail voting because it is so easy and they’re familiar with Florida’s rules.

“It’s not difficult to do,” said Realtor Joyce Geras, 78, of New Port Richey. “We will definitely be continuing to vote by mail. Florida is a very good state as far as helping its seniors vote.” Geras said she was aware of the new bill “making it more difficult” to request a ballot.

Private worries

As Gruters’s Senate Bill 90 was debated in the legislature this year, some Republicans privately expressed worry that it could further undercut the party’s ability to encourage mail voting — particularly among military voters and the elderly, who overwhelmingly use that method to cast their ballots.

One former state party official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations said some Republicans briefly discussed whether lawmakers could exempt those two groups from the provision requiring voters to request mail ballots every election cycle. “Key lawmakers said, ‘You can’t do that,’ ” the former official said. “It would raise equal protection problems.”

Now, the damage is done, he added. “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.”

Several state Republican operatives said they have spoken directly to lawmakers in their party who did not like Senate Bill 90 — but were unwilling to speak up for fear of incurring the wrath of party leaders and their own supporters.

Because more Democrats voted by mail in 2020, Republicans may assume that curtailing mail voting will have a larger effect on the other party, several voting rights activists said.

Kirk Bailey, political director for the ACLU of Florida, said he thinks that’s a mistake.

“This bill is so restrictive for all voters that it’s going to impact all the parties in ways that I’m not sure anybody really knows,” he said.

Schale cautioned that the shift of Democratic and Republican voting habits in 2020 is by no means assured to continue. Two huge factors were at work — Trump’s rhetoric, plus fears of the coronavirus — that will wane in time, he said.

“Any time either party tries to make a change in the way we think about elections because of one election cycle, it’s kind of fraught with danger,” he said. “I do not believe we know enough about voting behavior to know that Democrats are going to vote by mail forever going forward. In the same way, Republicans have voted by mail for 20 years, and we don’t know they’re going to stop just because Donald Trump doesn’t like it.”

In fact, new research by the University of Florida’s Smith found that the use of mail voting among Republicans is more extensive than GOP voters themselves recognize.

He found that state records showed that 18.2 percent of Florida Republicans who said they did not plan to vote by mail in the fall actually did so in the end. In other words, even among Republican voters who supported Trump and signaled mail-vote hesitancy, the desire to vote that way prevailed.

And that signals a potential miscalculation by the GOP, Smith said.

“Make no mistake: Senate Bill 90 targets newly registered and younger voters, African Americans, as well as Democrats, who disproportionately switched to requesting and voting a mail ballot in November due to health concerns,” Smith said. “The GOP leadership has discounted any collateral damage, calculating that the benefit to the party outweighs any harm done to its party faithful.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.