MIAMI—Tomorrow, as the sun rises, Bishop Victor Curry of New Birth Baptist Church will wake up and race to the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown. At 7 a.m., he will help lead south Florida’s first early-vote rally. As soon as he can, he will hotfoot it to the South Dade Regional Library, 30-odd minutes away, for the day’s second early-vote rally. He will find some way to flee in time to make the start of the EBA Higher Education Awareness and Dropout Prevention Initiative in Miami Gardens, the heart of black south Florida, and take the stage next to Rev. Al Sharpton. Then back on the road, north to Broward County.
The plan, coordinated by at least 150 black pastors, is called “Operation Lemonade.” On Wednesday, I visited New Birth, parking near the van that promotes his radio talk show, and finding Curry’s office in the sprawling, 10-year-old gated complex. Outside the chapel, there’s a signed message from President Obama congratulating Curry on the church’s anniversary. Inside Curry’s office, there are multiple pictures commemorating his meetings with Sharpton and with Bill Clinton, next to his lifetime membership plaque from the NAACP, and a picture from election night 2008. That year, churches got two whole weeks to turn out the early vote. This year they get one.
“When the Republicans in the state passed the new voting laws, we discovered that they took away that Sunday right before the election,” says Curry. “What we decided to do was view that as them giving us a lemon. We can be sour, we can moan and groan about it, or we can do something. We can make lemonade. The first thrust is this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and then we’re going to encourage people the entire next week.”
Democrats are proud to say it: If they win this election, it’ll be because a superior ground game turned out their base and overcame a Mitt Romney comeback. In Florida, they have twice as many campaign offices as Romney-Ryan. “With absentee ballot requests, usually the Republicans have a pretty significant advantage on us,” says Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chairwoman who represents a liberal slice of the Miami sprawl. “We’ve cut the advantage by 85 percent.” This is true.
And they had to battle to get there. From the moment Republicans took office in 2011, controlling gubernatorial and election offices in swing states, they started tightening voting laws. In Pennsylvania, the state passed its first-ever requirement for voter ID at the polls. In Ohio, the state attempted to eliminate early-voting days for anyone not serving in the military. In Florida, it took only two months to pass a comprehensive bill that scaled back early-voting days, prevented voters from changing their addresses when they got to the polls, and started a 48-hour countdown that required voter-registration campaigns to turn in their forms within two days or pay fines—a de jure response to ACORN paranoia. That bill was filed on March 7 and become law two months later.
The Florida law became infamous. After the League of Women Voters gave up on registering voters, The Daily Show sent a reporter down to make fun of the 48-hour rule. According to a summer report by the Third Way think tank, Democrats lost 246,934 Florida voters after November 2008, and Republicans had lost only 71,829. But after November 2011, when the 48-hour law went into effect, Democrats lost 8,044 registrants; Republicans gained 18,303.
And then the Democrats got the rules reversed. In June, a Florida court struck down the 48-hour rule. In September, the state gave up on an error-filled purge of voter registrations. October was a sloppy rout for voter restrictions, as the Pennsylvania and Ohio laws were halted. “We won in court just when we were ramping up registration,” says Wasserman Schultz. “In Florida, we have 520,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. If you look at the registration of Hispanic voters, since November of 2008, 195,000 Hispanic voters have registered as Democrats or independents.”