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Mail ballots headed to homes across Florida for August primary

Elections officials expect to see more people turning to mail ballots for the August primary and November general election amid the pandemic.

Ballots for Florida’s Aug. 18 primary will soon reach the mailboxes of voters around the state. That’s right: It’s election time.

In the past few months, Florida’s 67 elections supervisors have been working under the specter of the coronavirus threat to shore up poll workers, adjust procedures, find new polling places for some precincts, secure masks and hand sanitizer, and promote mail ballots as a safe alternative to in-person voting.

Thursday was the first day elections officials could begin mailing ballots to domestic voters for the primary.

“It’s showtime,” said Craig Latimer, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, as he watched pallets of mail ballots being loaded onto a truck to be sent to the post office. “People are going to start voting.”

Mail ballots — long a key part of Florida’s voting landscape — are expected to take an even larger role in the primary as well as the November general election for voters wary about in-person voting amid the pandemic.

Related: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here's what you need to know

The number being sent out gives an early look at the interest.

Hillsborough County shipped about 290,000 ballots to domestic voters Thursday, while Pasco County mailed more than 89,000 ballots. Pinellas County, which is planning to start mailing ballots next week, has about 314,000 being prepared to be shipped.

Hillsborough already sent out another 4,400 ballots to overseas voters; Pinellas and Pasco sent 3,900 and 1,400 overseas ballots, respectively.

Nate Dodd, left, and Sean Cousins, right, pause while loading pallets of voting ballots onto a truck at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office in Tampa on Thursday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

For all three counties, the number of initial mail ballots being sent out for the August primary is higher than the number of mail ballots that were sent out for the general elections in 2016 and 2018.

Latimer said the number of ballots he sent to the post office Thursday was about double compared to the 2016 primary election. He said that’s partially because there are more voters in the county, but also said people “are certainly taking advantage of it because of the COVID.” Latimer, who is also the president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association, said he and his colleagues around the state have been pushing vote-by-mail.

Statewide, roughly 3.2 million vote-by-mail ballots have been or will soon be sent to voters for the primary, including 1.4 million registered Democrats and 1.1 million registered Republicans, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

Voters can continue to request mail ballots be sent to them until 10 days before the election.

Once received, the ballots can immediately be filled out and returned. So far, statewide, only a few hundred have been returned from overseas voters.

Elections officials have taken different tacks in deciding how and how much to promote mail ballots amid the coronavirus. Some counties, like Pinellas and Hillsborough, have opted to send mail ballot request forms to every voter who hasn’t already requested one. Many others have sent fliers or done other promotions.

Pinellas County, which already had significant numbers of voters using mail ballots, set a goal to get 330,000 voters registered for mail ballots this season, said spokesman Dustin Chase. That’s equal to just less than half of all active registered voters in the county.

Pasco County sent postcards informing people of their voting options, said Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. He said the postcards had an impact in his county’s jump in vote-by-mail requests in the past few months.

“The promotion of the vote-by-mail option is one way we can attempt to mitigate the unknown impacts of COVID-19,” Corley said in a text message. But he stressed that voters still will have the option of voting in person at early-voting sites or their polling places.

The number of people signing up to receive their ballots by mail has varied by county.

For instance, Polk County, which is sending mail ballot request forms to all voters without one already on file, said its number of vote-by-mail requests is in keeping with other presidential election years.

“We are not seeing a big COVID bump in vote-by-mail requests at this time,” Polk elections supervisor Lori Edwards said.

For nearly two decades, Floridians have been able to opt for a mail ballot without having to provide a reason for needing to do so.

Larger numbers of voters have turned toward that option over the years. Roughly 30 percent of the people who voted in the 2016 and 2018 general elections did so by mail.

During Florida’s March presidential preference primary — as Americans were just starting to understand the severity of the coronavirus outbreak (it was officially deemed a pandemic only six days before the election) — use of mail ballots surged to about 45 percent of the overall vote. That election also saw large numbers of poll worker no-shows and scrambles to move polling locations from assisted-living facilities to elsewhere.

Mail ballots have suddenly become a controversial and partisan issue nationwide, in large part due to President Donald Trump, who has worked to undermine confidence in mail-ballot voting.

Trump, who himself has voted by mail, has repeatedly alleged widespread fraud in mail ballots. He threatened on Twitter to withhold federal funding for Michigan for its decision to send absentee voter applications to all registered voters.

Related: Vote by mail helps Florida Republicans, so why is Trump bashing it?

Voters who want a mail ballot sent to them for the August primary can request one until 5 p.m. on Aug. 8. They can do so by submitting an online or written request or by calling or visiting their county elections office.

Early voting for the primary will start as early as Aug. 3, depending on the county.

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