The 2020 presidential election is a national phenomenon, but voting is a local endeavor.
The Tampa Bay Times is committed to providing information on all the rules and deadlines around elections in Florida so you can cast your vote and have it counted.
In this crucial election year, information about voting — not all of it accurate — seems to be everywhere. We’ve compiled answers to some common questions here. We’ll add on to this Q&A as necessary.
Nov. 3 is just around the corner. The votes that Floridians cast will be key not only in deciding the presidential race, but will also shape the direction of our local and state communities for years to come.
Registering to vote
How do I register to vote?
You can register online at RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov. You can also register to vote by mail or in person.
You must be a U.S. citizen to register, as well as a Florida resident and at least 18 years old.
When is the deadline?
The original deadline to register to vote was Oct. 5 in order to be eligible to vote in November’s election. Following outages on the state’s online voter registration portal, the state extended the deadline until 7 p.m. on Oct. 6. The deadline to register to vote in time for the 2020 general election has now passed.
I have a felony on my record. Can I register to vote?
Possibly. If you were not convicted of murder or a sex offense, and if your sentence is completed — meaning you’ve finished probation and you do not owe any court-ordered fees, fines or restitution to victims — you can vote. If you’re unsure whether you still owe fees or fines, you can request an advisory opinion from the Florida Secretary of State.
I’m already registered to vote. Do I need to do anything else?
You should check before the election to make sure that your voter registration information is correct. You can do that through the state’s voter information lookup portal or by checking with your county supervisor of elections office.
If you have moved or need to make other changes to your existing voter registration, you can still do so after the voter registration deadline. To make changes to the voter registration record, use the same options you’d use to register to vote.
If you plan to vote by mail, you should make sure that your signature is up to date. See more on that in the section on mail voting.
Why am I getting texts or mail saying I may not be registered to vote or may not be signed up for mail ballots?
If you’ve gotten such a notification, it’s likely from a third-party group trying to help register voters or increase turnout.
Mailers from organizations like the nonprofit Voter Participation Center have gone out to voters across Florida and the United States. While the organizations in many cases may be well-meaning, they have been criticized at times for causing confusion if a message is sent to an ineligible voter or someone who is already registered or already signed up to receive a mail ballot.
“I appreciate there are people out there that want people to register to vote or have requests on file for mail ballots,” said Julie Marcus, Pinellas County’s supervisor of elections. But she said it’s problematic if the organizations are “using databases that are outdated, sending things to people who are deceased or who have been off our voter rolls for years.”
There is no handy list of unregistered voters, which makes voter registration efforts tricky.
The state itself has run into issues with this. The Florida Department of State in September sent out postcards to 2.2 million people it thought were unregistered. But elections officials say the list included some people who were registered but whose personal information is protected from public records.
The Leon County Supervisor of Elections even received such a postcard from the state, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
The bottom line: Don’t panic if you receive mail or a text message like this. If anything, it’s always a good idea to check your voter registration and mail ballot status to make sure it’s accurate. Voters can check their voter registration with their county elections office or through the state’s voter information lookup portal. (See more of that information in another part of this Q&A.)
“Look yourself up, see if you’re registered, reassure yourself. Pick the phone up and call us,” said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer. “We’d be more than happy to verify stuff for you.”
We have a longer Q&A on mail voting here: https://www.tampabay.com/florida-politics/buzz/2020/06/22/so-you-want-to-vote-by-mail-in-florida-heres-what-you-need-to-know/
How do I request a vote-by-mail ballot?
Voters can call or visit their county supervisor of elections office, fill out a written request and send it in, or fill out a request form online. Each county elections office in Florida has a link to an online vote-by-mail request form.
Voters will need to provide their name, address and date of birth. If the request is made in writing and is to an address other than the one on file, you will also need to provide your signature.
Do I need an excuse to vote by mail?
No. Beginning in 2002, Florida began allowing anyone who wants a mail ballot to request one. You do not need to be out of town or sick or have any other excuse to request a ballot.
How long does my request stand?
In general, requests for mail ballots stand through the calendar year of two general elections. That means that if you requested vote-by-mail ballots ahead of the 2016 general election, you may need to make the request again unless you’ve already said you want to continue voting by mail.
Is there a deadline to request a mail ballot?
The deadline to request a ballot be mailed to your home has now passed. That deadline was Oct. 24.
However, voters can still choose to pick up a mail ballot from their county elections office through the day before the election. (Voters can also request a mail ballot on Election Day in the event of an emergency.)
How do I check to make sure I have a request for a mail ballot on file?
Voters can call their county elections office or check online to see whether their request for a mail ballot is listed on file.
What if I request a mail ballot but want to vote in person?
Voters who request a mail ballot can still choose to vote in person instead, elections officials say.
A voter choosing to instead vote in person should bring their mail ballot with them to the voting site and hand it in and an election worker would mark the mail ballot as canceled and provide the voter with a regular ballot. If a voter does not bring the mail ballot with them, they can still vote if election workers can confirm that the voter has not already voted by mail.
If poll workers cannot confirm that a voter has not already voted by mail, the voter may have to vote by provisional ballot, meaning the canvassing board would decide later whether to count the vote.
When would I need to return my completed mail ballot?
Mail-in ballots must be received — not postmarked — by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3 in order to be counted for all voters in the United States.
Overseas voters get an extra 10 days to mail back their vote-by-mail ballots in general elections. Overseas voters’ mail ballots must be postmarked or dated by Election Day and received within 10 days of the election.
I’ve been reading about budget issues with the U.S. Postal Service. Should I be worried about my mail ballot?
The short answer: If it’s getting close to the deadline for your ballot to be returned, voters should consider some other options, such as dropping off the ballot in a drop box instead of a mailbox.
“The Postal Service is not a magical delivery service,” said Charles Stewart III, director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. “Nothing is going to turn on a dime.”
The Postal Service has said that, while most first-class mail is delivered in 2-5 days, “voters should mail their return ballots at least one week prior to the due date established by state law.”
Recent operational changes at the Postal Service appears to have at least temporarily slowed down mail delivery in some parts of the country, although Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has said that election mail would be prioritized.
Do I need to go out and get stamps just to vote this way?
Only some counties in Florida provide return postage on vote-by-mail ballots, although a growing number are opting to do so amid the coronavirus pandemic. At least 24 counties say they will pay return postage for the November election. For those that don’t, postage costs can vary.
Both Pinellas and Pasco counties are starting to pay for return postage amid the pandemic, while Hillsborough County has already been paying for return postage for a number of years. Hernando County does not currently pay for return postage for mail ballots.
But while the U.S. Postal Service stresses that appropriate postage be affixed, it has long had a policy of not delaying election mail due to insufficient postage. In many cases when that happens, the post office will deliver the mail and charge the county elections office.
I’ve heard about problems with mail ballots not arriving or not being counted. How would I know whether my ballot was counted?
After putting their filled-in ballot in the mail, voters can track online to see whether their county supervisor of elections office has received their mailed ballots.
If a mail ballot is not accepted, due to a signature mismatch or other issue, the elections office is required to notify the voter and provide the voter with an opportunity to “cure” the issue so it can be counted. A vote-by-mail cure affidavit must be submitted by 5 p.m. two days after the election.
Wait, my signature has to match what?
Elections officials look at the signature on the mail ballot envelope and compare it to the signature on file to see if it matches. That makes it important for voters to make sure the signature on file is updated. (To update your signature, fill out a paper copy of the state’s voter registration application.)
Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who specializes in elections, has found that mail ballots are more likely to be rejected than ballots cast in person, and that the main reasons mail ballots were rejected were because of missing or mismatched signatures.
Smith has found that rejection rates varied widely by county and often disproportionately affect younger people and minorities.
Florida law recently changed to provide more time for voters to cure their mail ballots and requires elections officials to try to reach the voter by phone, email, text message and usually by mail to let them know if their ballot was rejected so they can try to cure the issue. The mail ballot envelope was modified to include spaces for voters to put their contact information.
If I vote by mail, do I get an “I voted” sticker?
It depends on the county. Some, such as Hillsborough County, do include stickers for voters with the other materials in vote-by-mail packets.
Others, including Pinellas County, do not. (However, Pinellas County’s elections office will offer the stickers to voters who drop off their mail ballots in person at drop boxes. More on drop boxes below.)
I heard some counties are debuting new technology to help people with disabilities complete their mail ballots?
As part of a legal settlement between The Florida Council of the Blind and the state’s 67 supervisors of elections, five Florida counties — Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Volusia, Nassau and Orange — will launch a pilot program in time for the November election meant to give more accessibility of vote-by-mail to voters with disabilities.
The settlement, approved this summer, requires every Florida county to have an accessible vote-by-mail system in place by the end of March 2022.
Voters in the pilot counties would be able to mark their ballot electronically using a web interface through a system called the Democracy Live OmniBallot. Voters would still have to print out the ballot, sign the envelope and mail or return it like other mail ballots.
Contact your county elections office for more information.
How do mail ballot drop boxes work?
Counties have set up drop boxes in different ways, with some offering drive-through options, some having 24-hour drop boxes and others more simply offering secure boxes within elections offices and early voting sites.
Some of the boxes are small and portable, while others have drop boxes that look like fortified mail boxes and are bolted to the ground and others use a slot in a wall of a building that drops into a secured room or box.
Voters wanting to drop their mail ballots off in a drop box rather than putting them in the mail should still ensure their ballot and envelope are properly completed, including putting their signature on the envelope.
Where can I find one?
Florida law now requires counties to have secure drop boxes at supervisor of elections office and at each early voting site. (A couple counties said they did not have drop boxes in place for the August primary but plan to have them for November.)
Counties can also choose to place drop boxes at certain other sites, although few counties have opted to do that so far. Pinellas County is one of them; it is offering drop boxes at 25 sites for the November general election, even though it has only five early voting sites for the general election.
Check with your county elections supervisor for details on the locations of the drop boxes.
When will drop boxes be available?
Check with your county supervisor of elections office for details on when drop boxes will become available and during what hours or days.
Some counties are offering 24-hour drop boxes, while others are only making them available during business or early voting hours.
Will there be a drop box at my polling place on Election Day?
During a recent workshop with Florida’s county supervisors of elections, Brad McVay, general counsel with the Florida Department of State, said that drop boxes are generally not allowed at polling places on Election Day.
However, voters who received a mail ballot and instead want to vote in person can do so by bringing in their mail ballot and exchanging it for a regular ballot at their polling place. (See more on this in the mail ballots section of this Q&A.)
What is the security on drop boxes?
A Tampa Bay Times survey of county elections offices found that many required drop boxes be manned by elections staff at all times. Counties reported using locks and seals to ensure against tampering. Counties with 24-hour drop boxes have said the boxes are monitored by surveillance cameras.
Why has President Trump attacked the use of drop boxes in some states?
President Donald Trump has alleged without evidence that the use of drop boxes is a “voter security disaster.”
The Trump campaign sued to block elections officials in Pennsylvania from using official drop boxes in places other than an elections office. It argued in part that the drop boxes could increase the potential for ballot fraud or tampering, including ballot harvesting, which is illegal in that state.
When ordered by a federal court judge to provide evidence for its claims of issues with fraud, the campaign offered no evidence of fraud specifically tied to drop boxes or to mail ballots, according to Type Investigations, which reviewed the partially redacted response from the campaign.
That federal lawsuit has since been placed on hold.
Who is allowed to collect and turn in my mail ballot for me?
Unlike some other states, Florida law allows people to collect completed ballots as long as they are not paid to do so. Except in Miami-Dade, which has a county code limiting any designee from returning more than two ballots per election, there is no limit to how many completed mail ballots one person can turn in.
When and how can I vote in person before Election Day?
Any registered voter can opt to vote at any early voting location in their county. Every county is required to offer early voting from Oct. 24 to 31. Counties can also opt to offer early voting on certain other days, beginning as early as Oct. 19.
Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Manatee, Citrus and Hernando counties all began early voting on Oct. 19.
You can check with your county elections offices for locations and hours of early voting:
The state also has a full list of early voting locations and days on its website.
Where do I vote on Election Day?
In most counties, on Nov. 3, voters may only vote in person at their designated polling location.
Voters should make sure to check with their county supervisor of elections to make sure their polling place has not changed.
Across the state, there are hundreds fewer polling places in 2020 than there were in 2016. Some of that has come amid increasing popularity of voting by mail and other changes, but the coronavirus pandemic has also contributed to polling place closures in some parts of the state.
Last-minute changes to polling places, whether because of the coronavirus, a burst water pipe or other issues, may happen. Elections officials are supposed to notify voters of any changes to their polling places, but it is also important to check before you head out on Election Day.
What do I need to bring with me to the polls?
You will need to present a valid photo ID with signature. That could include a Florida driver’s license, a passport, a debit or credit card, student identification, public assistance identification or many other forms of photo ID.
If your photo ID does not include a signature, you’ll be asked to provide another ID that does include your signature.
When are polls open?
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Nov. 3. Any voters waiting in line at 7 p.m. will be allowed to vote.
Can I take a picture of my ballot?
Different states have different rules regarding so-called “ballot selfies.” Florida law recently changed to allow voters to photograph their own ballots.
However, aside from this “ballot selfie,” photography is still not permitted in the polling room or early voting area.
Do I need to wear a mask?
It depends on local rules, but voters in general are encouraged to wear masks.
How safe is it to vote in person?
Elections officials have updated cleaning protocols, equipped elections workers with protective equipment like gloves and face shields and added other protections, like spacing out voting booths, providing disposable pens or adding plexiglass barriers between election workers and voters.
To date, there has not been evidence of actual transmission in polling places here in the United States, said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, vice chair of the Global Health Committee with the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Still, there are certainly coronavirus-related risks of exposure of going to indoor public places.
And there have been a few cases here in Florida where election workers have tested positive after working at a polling place or early voting location.
How votes are counted
Are mail ballots only counted if the election is close?
Short answer: all legitimate votes are counted, regardless of whether cast by mail, at an early voting site, at a Nov. 3 polling place or provisionally.
In Florida, elections officials are actually able to begin processing mail ballots through tabulating equipment well before Nov. 3, although they are not allowed to begin releasing results until after polls close on Election Day.
That means mail ballots are often among the first results reported by counties when results start coming out.
Even before the coronavirus, Florida law allowed elections supervisors to begin canvassing mail ballots 22 days before the election. Gov. Ron DeSantis has expanded that amid the pandemic this year, allowing elections officials to begin that process even earlier.
That means Florida will likely be in better shape than some other states in handling mail ballots, since some other states don’t allow mail ballots to begin to be tallied on Election Day.
Will my ballot get tossed if I don’t vote in one race?
No. Voters can opt to abstain from voting in a race. That’s called an undervote. The other votes on the ballot will still be tallied.
When will we know who won?
That’s the million-dollar question, and it’s dependent on a number of factors, including how smoothly Nov. 3 goes and how close a race is.
First, looking only at Florida: Because elections officials will have been able to tabulate mail ballots as well as ballots from early in-person voting before Election Day, a significant chunk of the vote totals should already be known as soon as polls close. Certainly, there will still be many mail ballots to be processed on the night of Nov. 3 and possibly into the following day or two that come in right before the deadline, but in races that are not close, the public may be able to determine the winner before every single precinct is reported or every mail ballot counted.
In close contests, it may naturally take longer to know the winner. And if a race goes to a recount, it will take even longer. A delay does not necessarily mean the system is broken; it likely means it’s working exactly as it should by counting every ballot. (Please also look at previous questions related to curing mail ballots and the deadline for returning overseas mail ballots.)
Nationally, some states that are expecting to see jumps in the number of people voting by mail are not set up to start the time-consuming process of counting mail ballots until Election Day, and that includes some battleground states in the presidential race. Some states also accept mail ballots as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3.
Elections experts warn that that means Americans need to have more patience and be prepared for a potential delay in knowing the winner of a close race.
Note that “decision desks” that are used by media outlets to call races rely on statistics, polling and other analyses to project winners of races beyond just reported vote totals (which is why sometimes the winner of the race is called when only a small percentage of the vote total is in).
One other note: Experts warn that voters watching results as they come in should not be surprised if an early leader in a race does not end up winning.
National polls have suggested that Democrats are much more likely to vote by mail than Republicans, who are more likely to favor in-person voting. So if, for instance, a swing state reports results from mail ballots first, the vote may shift more Republican later, and vice versa.
PolitiFact delves more into this issue here.
In 2018, now-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott claimed without evidence that there was “rampant fraud” as the vote tally between him and then-Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson narrowed as elections officials continued to count mail and other ballots. (Scott, of course, ended up winning the race.) President Donald Trump also weighed in on Twitter, alleging that ballots had “showed up out of nowhere” and that Florida should go with the vote counts from election night — which would have meant that some voters’ ballots wouldn’t be counted.
How do recounts work?
Florida is certainly no stranger to recounts, but the process behind them is not always well understood.
A machine recount must be ordered if the winning margin in the unofficial vote tally is 0.5 percent or less of the total votes cast. For federal, state or multi-county races, the Secretary of State technically orders the recount, while the local canvassing board orders the recount for all other races.
Candidates and political committees have no authority to request a recount in Florida.
A machine recount is simply done by re-feeding ballots back into tabulation machines to see if the vote totals change, whether because of an improperly calibrated machine or due to some other issue. The machines all must be tested before the recount begins.
If, after a machine recount, the winning margin is 0.25 percent or less of the total votes cast, then a manual recount is ordered. Only the ballots that were set aside during the machine recount as undervotes or overvotes will be manually tallied in this case. Overvotes are instances where the machine reads that a voter picked more than one option in a race, while an undervote is if the machine reads that a voter picked no option in a race.
The hand recount may show that the voter’s intention of who they wanted to choose was clear even though the machine read it as an overvote or undervote.
How to be a pollworker
I want to do even more and become a poll worker. How do I do that?
In Florida, poll workers are recruited by each county, so the first step is to contact your county supervisor of elections for more information.
What are the requirements to become a poll worker?
Poll workers must be registered (or pre-registered) voters in the county in which they want to work and must be able to read and write in English. They must be able to work at the polling location the entire time.
Will I be paid?
Yes. The rate of compensation depends on the county as well as on the position.
Do I need to attend training?
Yes, Florida law requires poll workers to receive at least two hours of training and maybe more depending on the position. Some counties have higher training requirements. Compensation may be available for training.
Times staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
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