Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis late Wednesday granted limited flexibility under state law to elections supervisors who for months have warned that the coronavirus pandemic will complicate their ability to hold elections in August and November.
In an emergency order that fell well short of granting supervisors the leeway they’d requested months ago, DeSantis gave the state’s 67 local elections officials the ability to begin processing mail ballots earlier than otherwise allowed under Florida law. He also established administrative policies encouraging state employees to work as poll workers in their home counties — potentially alleviating concerns about Election Day staffing shortages — and encouraged officials to create protocols for keeping polling places sanitized and voters socially distanced.
“I find that the strict application of some provisions of the Florida Election Code may prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with the COVID-19 emergency,” DeSantis, a Republican, wrote in the order.
The order addresses urgent calls by the state’s supervisors for flexibility that began in early April, shortly after Florida held its March 17 presidential preference primary. That election, despite relatively low turnout, saw hundreds of poll workers drop out on Election Day, and drew voters to the polls in masks and gloves. Afterward, two Broward County poll workers reported that they had tested positive for coronavirus.
But the response came more than 10 weeks after the supervisors urged DeSantis to act “as soon as possible,” and just days before supervisors will send their ballot designs to the printers.
“It comes at a point when many of the state’s Supervisors of Elections have already solidified their plans for the August primary election,” stated a news release issued by a spokeswoman for the Florida Supervisors of Elections association president, Hillsborough County Supervisor Craig Latimer.
The association also noted that DeSantis’ executive order was “substantially different” from its request to DeSantis in early April. Supervisors had also hoped that the governor would allow for extra days of early voting and allow them to establish regional early voting centers on Election Day to alleviate concerns about staffing and skittish landlords unwilling to act as polling places.
DeSantis, instead, gave supervisors the ability to begin opening mail ballots and running them through tabulators earlier than the current 22 days before the election. He offered state employees two full days of administrative leave if they serve as poll workers in their home counties. And he ordered Florida’s director of emergency management to work with county departments to provide protective equipment to elections offices.
DeSantis also encouraged public school boards to shutter schools on Aug. 18 and Nov. 3 in order to accommodate voters, who are often directed to polls based in schools.
“The Supervisors of Elections are currently reviewing the order to determine how it may affect their plans for the Primary and General Elections,” the association stated in its press release.
DeSantis’ order caught supervisors by surprise. Earlier in the day, Latimer expressed frustration during an interview with the Miami Herald about the lack of response from DeSantis’ office to the association’s requests for action. Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White said in an interview that “it’s too late at this point” for any executive order to make a difference in the Aug. 18 primary.
“We’re planners. We cannot be shooting the gun here at the last minute,” Susan Gill, Citrus County’s supervisor of elections, said Thursday. She said her county is already about to start poll worker training.
DeSantis’ office did not answer questions Wednesday about whether he had responded to supervisors’ requests for an executive order, which Democrats criticized as too little, too late.
“After a month of silence, Governor DeSantis issued an executive order which does far too little to protect votes,” said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa. “If he was serious about providing safe elections he would expand early voting to reduce Election Day lines, provide funding for early vote expansion and present a contingency plan so voters with health issues have more options to vote.”
The governor’s executive order is “a little bit of help to the larger counties, but overall it doesn’t do much of anything,” Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said Thursday. “It’s a lot of encouraging and recommending and suggesting people facilitate.”
But Edwards said she’s fine with no major changes now that the August primary election is only two months away. “In a way, it becomes almost a threatening idea to me if the governor decides to make substantive changes late in the process,” she said. “We’re not a sports car. We’re a school bus. We shouldn’t turn very quickly.”
In Manatee County, elections supervisor Michael Bennett said he doesn’t anticipate much of a change because of the executive order. “We would’ve liked to see the executive order include a little more flexibility with early voting,” he said.
Bennett said he’s already planning on using the same polling sites as he during the presidential preference primary in March, and he said he’s in good shape on getting elections workers.
Still, some elections officials said they were grateful for any help, particularly with bringing in poll workers.
“This is a good thing because it provides for additional options,” said Julie Marcus, supervisor of elections in Pinellas County. Her office worked with the county during the March presidential preference primary to bring in county employees as extra poll workers, and had already planned to do so again for the upcoming elections.
Marcus said she plans to speak with the county school board about the executive order, including about closing schools for Election Day or using district employees as poll workers. There are not currently any polling sites at schools in the county, but Marcus said she wants all options to be on the table as “things change day by day.”
Dan Helm, who is running against Marcus for supervisor of elections, said it was good that the governor issued an order providing some flexibility but questioned why it took so long.
Helm said he hopes elections officials are taking the virus seriously, particularly as numbers of cases are again rising in the state.
He said he’d encourage Pinellas County to really work to find more poll workers, particularly ones who are less at risk of serious complications from the coronavirus. And he said he’d like to see Pinellas County do more to expand early voting to help with social distancing.
“You shouldn’t have people congregating for early voting,” he said.