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Floridians return to the polls Tuesday for primary

Elections officials have spent months setting up health and safety protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Terry Atkinson, 75, of Clearwater, a field technician with the Supervisor of Elections office, tapes a bag for discarded cotton swabs to a table Monday in Clearwater. Voters will use a cotton swap, instead of an electronic pen, in order to sign their name during the check-in process.
Terry Atkinson, 75, of Clearwater, a field technician with the Supervisor of Elections office, tapes a bag for discarded cotton swabs to a table Monday in Clearwater. Voters will use a cotton swap, instead of an electronic pen, in order to sign their name during the check-in process. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 17, 2020
Updated Aug. 17, 2020

When Floridians last went to the polls in March, the coronavirus had just been declared a pandemic.

No one could know then how much concerns over the virus would disrupt elections, let alone how pervasive the virus would become in everyday life. Elections officials scrambled at the last minute to find hand sanitizer and replacement voting sites and poll workers.

Related: Florida presidential primary still on even as other states postpone over coronavirus

Now, almost exactly five months later, it’s election time again.

This time, county elections officials and voters alike have had months to think about how voting amid the pandemic should look.

For many voters, that has meant opting to cast a ballot by mail rather than voting in person. As of Monday morning, more than 2.1 million mail ballots had already been cast for the primary, a significant jump from the 2016 and 2018 primary elections. About 555,000 voters had also opted to vote early, hoping to take advantage of light or no crowds.

Campaign signs lead the way to the entrance of the University Area Community Development Center Monday Tampa.
Campaign signs lead the way to the entrance of the University Area Community Development Center Monday Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

But many voters are still expected to vote in person Tuesday.

There will be fewer polling places than in previous years in some counties, at least partly due to the virus. In some cases, hosts of longtime polling places said they weren’t comfortable welcoming back voters amid the pandemic. In other cases, a lack of poll workers have forced elections officials to consolidate sites.

Related: Help wanted: Florida poll workers to brave the coronavirus

Pinellas County will have 166 polling places open on Tuesday, a drop from the more than 200 locations it had during 2016 and a decrease of a dozen locations compared to March’s presidential preference primary. Some of the polling places that had to be moved this year were in assisted living facilities.

Hillsborough County will have 237 polling places, also a decrease compared to March and to 2016.

Not all changes to polling places are related to the coronavirus.

However, Hernando County’s supervisor of elections opted to close five polling places for the August primary after realizing she didn’t have enough veteran poll workers to staff all of them.

Hernando County currently has enough poll workers to staff the remaining sites, said Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson, but she said she does not have a pool of alternate poll workers.

“We’re putting everybody that trained out,” Anderson said. She added, “If anybody sneezes, we’ll have to do some shuffling.”

Other counties say they are in better shape with poll workers.

Anne Marie Youlio, 55, of Palm Harbor, center, along with Marysue Catlin, 75, of Clearwater, left, and Georges Gonzalez, 51, of Temple Terrace work to setup voting machines Monday in Clearwater.
Anne Marie Youlio, 55, of Palm Harbor, center, along with Marysue Catlin, 75, of Clearwater, left, and Georges Gonzalez, 51, of Temple Terrace work to setup voting machines Monday in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“We have a surplus of poll workers baked into our numbers now,” said Dustin Chase, spokesman for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office. He said his office normally has 50 poll workers on standby, but after seeing last-minute poll workers drop out during March’s presidential preference primary, it decided to increase that number. Now the office has more than 100 poll workers in reserves, Chase said.

Elections offices around the state have also spent months buying gloves, face masks and shields, sanitizing wipes, ballot printers and other equipment and putting various safety measures in place for in-person voting. They’ve set up social distancing rules that some warn could potentially slow down the voting process and instituted cleaning plans for throughout the voting day as well as before and after.

Hillsborough County is providing combination pens/styluses to every voter that can be used to sign in and to mark ballots and that can be taken with voters when they leave. Pinellas County will have Q-tip-like swabs that voters can use to sign in, and will regularly clean the pens it provides for voting. Voters can also choose to bring their own pen with them.

Unlike during early voting, neither Hillsborough or Pinellas will have plexiglass dividers set up at check-in stations on Tuesday. Both counties said doing so at multiple check-in stations at all of its polling sites was cost-prohibitive. But both counties say they are offering plastic face shields to poll workers.

Related: How mask mandates are playing out in Florida's 2020 elections

Florida voters who opt to cast ballots in person on Tuesday must go to their designated polling site to do so.

Primary voters will get to weigh in on a number of major state and local races that could shape the direction of education, criminal justice and more in their communities.

Because Florida is a closed primary state, only voters who are registered as Democrats may vote in Democratic primary races, and only those registered as Republicans may vote in Republican primary races. Those races will determine which candidates run in the general election. Anyone, regardless of their party affiliation, may vote in nonpartisan races, such as those for judges or school board members, or in universal primary contests.

The Tampa Bay Times has an online voter guide with information on each candidate. The guide can be found at tampabay.com/voterguide.

Voters who have requested mail ballots but not yet returned them must do so by 7 p.m. Tuesday by dropping them off at their county elections office.

Voters can find their polling place by going to their supervisor of elections’ website.

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections: votepinellas.com

Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections: votehillsborough.org

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections: pascovotes.gov

Hernando County Supervisor of Elections: hernandovotes.com