Florida Voter Registration Surges

More than 100,000 people took advantage of Florida's extra week of voter registration after a federal judge extended the deadline in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.

According to the Division of Elections website, 78,934 applications had been verified through Saturday, with an additional 34,726 applications still pending. Secretary of State Ken Detzner's office told the Tampa Bay Times a full breakdown of the new registration figures by county and party would be available on Oct. 31.

"Our number one priority is to make sure that voters have the resources they need to have the opportunity to vote," Detzner said in a statement announcing plans to devote additional staff to processing the applications. "Our goal is to encourage 100 percent voter participation and have zero percent fraud."

The deadline for registration was originally Oct. 11, just days after Matthew, then a Category 3 storm, swept up the eastern coast of the state. Gov. Rick Scott ordered the evacuation of 1.5 million people, prompting fears that thousands of eligible voters would be disenfranchised in the final days of registration, when applications historically surge.

After Republican Scott rejected a request by the Florida Democratic Party to extend the deadline, the state party filed a lawsuit in federal court. On the day of the deadline, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker ruled an extension was necessary, and on Oct. 12, moved the deadline a week, to Oct. 18.

"This case is about the right of aspiring eligible voters to register and to have their votes counted," Walker wrote. "Nothing could be more fundamental to our democracy."

Democrats believe the figures will ultimately benefit their presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, and their down-ballot candidates in a crucial battleground that has became a perennial cautionary tale after Vice President Al Gore lost the state – and thus, the presidency – to Texas Gov. George W. Bush by fewer than 600 votes.

Overall, Democrats are outpacing the GOP in the Sunshine State in new registrations this year. Of the 651,000 voters that signed up between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 34 percent identified as Democrats and 28 percent registered as Republicans, while 35 percent declared neither party.

And though Democrats still hold an edge in registration statewide, 4.7 million to 4.6 million, Republicans have narrowed the gap by 284,000 over the past four years, when President Barack Obama won the state by less than 75,000 votes.

Experts also expect Democrats, bolstered by a more substantial get-out-the-vote operation on the ground and strong motivation in the form of Republican nominee Donald Trump, who is cited in a surge of Latino registrations nationwide, will come out ahead in the final six weeks of registrations.

"I will guarantee you [the Democrats'] number will get bigger in the last month because the Democratic operatives and their allies, the progressive, non-profit community, have been out registering voters leading up to the Oct. 11 deadline," Daniel Smith, an expert on voter registration at the University of Florida, told USA Today.

By most measures, the state remains close, with Clinton holding a narrow edge in polls in a four-way contest that includes Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein. If she wins the Sunshine State, Trump's path to victory in the Electoral College would be all-but nonexistent.

And the state is likely to help determine the victor in a fiercely fought contest for the Senate, where incumbent Republican Marco Rubio is struggling to fight off his Democratic challenger, Rep. Patrick Murphy. Even as the Democrats' national Senate campaign arm has pulled funding from the race, Murphy has benefited from appearances by Obama and other high-profile surrogates, and remains within striking distance.

An extra 100,000 votes could make all the difference.

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