With only 36 days until Nov. 3, Florida’s elections officials are busy sending out and collecting mail ballots, training poll workers and making sure they have all their plans and backup plans in place for the start of early in-person voting next month.
Craig Latimer, Hillsborough County’s supervisor of elections, has been running elections in the state’s fourth-largest county since 2012. But a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic? That’s something new.
Latimer is also president of the nonpartisan Florida Supervisors of Elections association. The Tampa Bay Times asked him a few questions about how he’s preparing for this election and what he wants voters to know.
Latimer’s answers have been lightly edited for style and clarity.
What happens if you or another key supervisor of elections employee tests positive for the coronavirus right before Election Day?
Everyone in our office has an important role to play in this election, and at the same time, we have to ensure that the work can go on if any one of us becomes unavailable to work for any reason. That’s always been the case but it is heightened during this pandemic. So we have established processes to ensure that we can both minimize the risk of getting the virus and ensure that our work will not be impacted in the case that someone contracts it. We work remotely whenever possible. Those who are in the office are assigned to specific physical zones in the building. We have multiple shifts set up to do certain tasks. And we have a very strict mask policy.
What is the scenario that keeps you up at night?
The nature of elections is that you have to plan for the unexpected. I am confident that we can handle whatever may come our way that presents a challenge to the way we conduct the election. The thing that is harder to control is the spread of misinformation, which is especially prevalent now. This happens both intentionally, as an effort to undermine confidence in our election results, and unintentionally, due to misunderstandings about issues in some parts of the country that may not affect Florida at all. We will be stepping up our communications efforts so that we can serve as a trusted source of information for our voters.
What should voters expect at in-person voting?
They should expect a safe, healthy environment for voting. We’re following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to minimize touch points, maintain social distance and sanitize surfaces, and all of our poll workers will be wearing masks. We’ve also expanded the opportunities for contactless, curbside drop-off for vote-by-mail ballots, so that’s a new kind of in-person voting that we expect to be very popular.
Should voters be prepared for lines on Election Day?
Yes. All of our health and safety efforts could result in some lines during in-person voting. We’ve done our best to minimize that by encouraging vote by mail, using the maximum number of days and hours allowed for early voting and setting up plenty of in-person sites for voting.
If a voter has voted by mail, should they also come to an in-person voting site?
No. Voters can only vote one time. After voting by mail, voters should visit our website and track their mail ballot, just like they would track a package, to make sure their mail ballot has been received. There is absolutely no reason to go to an in-person voting site if you’ve already voted by mail.
What do you want to tell people about putting their ballot in the mail?
Don’t wait! In Hillsborough County, we pay the return postage, so mailing your ballot back is easy. Just make sure you put it in the mail as soon as possible, so there is plenty of time for it to arrive at our office by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3. And track your ballot on our website, VoteHillsborough.org, to make sure it has arrived.
What is the question you get asked most these days by voters, and what do you say?
The question: How soon can I vote? The answer: Right now! We started mailing out vote-by-mail ballots on Sept. 24, and you can even come into one of my offices and we’ll print one for you while you wait. And for those who want to vote in person, early voting starts Oct. 19 in Hillsborough County.
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