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Florida’s voting begins as ballots get sent to overseas voters

Ballots being sent now to overseas civilian and absent military voters make up a small fraction of Florida’s mail ballots, but in a state known for historically razor-thin margins, this diverse group should not be overlooked.

There are still about 45 days left before the Nov. 3 general election, but voting is already starting in the Sunshine State.

As of midday Friday, more than 140 voters had already returned their mail ballots as counties begin sending ballots to overseas voters and a smattering of residents have stopped by elections offices for over-the-counter vote-by-mail ballots.

That number will keep growing in the coming days. Under federal law, county elections officials must send mail ballots to overseas voters and absent military voters by Saturday. Once received, the ballots can immediately be filled out and returned.

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are shipping ballots to overseas voters on Friday, with Hillsborough County sending out more than 6,800 ballots and Pinellas sending out roughly 5,000. Pasco County is sending about 1,500 ballots to overseas voters.

Millions more mail ballots will be sent through the mail beginning Thursday. That’s when Florida’s 67 county supervisors of elections can begin sending mail ballots to voters in the states. Already, a record 4.5 million Floridians have requested mail ballots for the general election, with that number expected to grow as the election nears.

The ballots being sent now to overseas civilian and absent military voters make up only a small fraction of Florida’s mail ballots, but in a state known for historically razor-thin margins, this diverse group should not be overlooked.

As of 2018, Florida had the largest number of registered overseas voters and absent military members of any state, according to a report from the Election Assistance Commission. Hillsborough County was one of 11 jurisdictions nationwide that were listed as the legal voting residence of more than 10,000 overseas or absent military voters, according to that report. (Four other Florida counties also made the list: Miami-Dade, Duval, Escambia and Broward.)

About two-thirds of these registered voters in Florida are uniformed service members and the rest are overseas civilians.

Florida counties sent about 95,000 ballots to these voters in the 2018 midterm election, and about 50,000 of those ballots were returned, according to the commission’s report.

“If you’re talking about a state where a few thousand votes could move the needle one way or another, it could be a very important voting bloc,” said Jim Gosart, a vice president of Republicans Overseas.

Gosart said overseas voters are affected by U.S. legislation, but because of the widely different experiences these Americans have in various countries, “it’s hard to figure out where those votes are going to land.” He said this group of voters include deployed military members and their spouses, teachers, missionaries, Americans who have moved abroad for work and others.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program estimates there are about 2.9 million Americans who are eligible to vote from abroad, not including active duty military members and their spouses, although other estimates put the number of eligible overseas American voters even higher.

But turnout among overseas voters is historically quite low.

Overseas voters may face long mailing times and confusion about how to vote while abroad. And thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, there may be even more barriers to voting this year, including mail interruptions in some countries.

In the 2018 election, more than 6 percent of the overseas ballots returned to Florida were not counted, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission. While the reasons were not detailed by state, the commission said that a ballot being returned too late was a primary explanation for why the vote was not counted.

During Florida’s August 2020 primary, more than 26,000 overseas civilian and absent military members cast ballots, said University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith. Democrats made up 43 percent of those votes and Republicans made up 39 percent.

Smith said about 4,000 of the returned ballots in the primary were rejected due to a voter-caused error, and about 130 were rejected for missing a signature.

“Our overseas and military families — voters who are accustomed to voting by mail — appear to be particularly vulnerable to having their mail ballots rejected,” Smith said.

Florida allows counties to send ballots by email or fax to overseas civilian and absent military voters, and for these voters to choose to return their completed ballots by fax rather than mail. Overseas voters, unlike other Florida voters, are also given 10 extra days from Election Day in general elections for their ballot to be received and counted.

Still, overseas voters face a number of logistical challenges, including having to figure out how to fold the return envelopes that are sent to them via email or fax, or how to make sure a ballot that is faxed back will properly print onto the regular-sized paper in county supervisor of elections' offices, said Julia Bryan, global chair of Democrats Abroad.

Over the summer, Democrats Abroad and Ambassadors for Biden, which is made up of former U.S. ambassadors, announced an effort to mobilize overseas voters, saying they were focused especially on swing states like Florida.

“Our No. 1 mission is to get the vote out across the world,” Bryan said.

With these first ballots being sent out, the final stretch to Election Day is on.

With an expected increase in mail ballots this year, continued uncertainty from a pandemic and an active hurricane season, elections officials and other experts are urging voters to consider voting early, either through mail ballots or during in-person early voting. Early in-person voting starts as early as Oct. 19 in some Florida counties.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

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