The 2020 general election season hits a new phase Monday as Floridians in most counties start casting ballots in person.
While much ado has been made about vote-by-mail ballots this year, some elections officials say they are also bracing for high interest in early in-person voting, anticipating that more Floridians may opt for this option if they want to avoid potential crowds on Nov. 3 or are leery of voting by mail. Early voting has long been a staple of Florida’s elections.
On Monday, 378 early voting sites will open in 52 of Florida’s 67 counties, including at some new high-profile spots like Amalie Arena and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and the Amway Center in Orlando.
The remaining counties will open early voting sites in subsequent days. All counties are required to begin early voting by Oct. 24.
Overall turnout is expected to be at a record high in this presidential election. And with the coronavirus pandemic increasing concerns about crowded indoor spaces, elections officials nationwide have had to consider whether to add early voting sites or extend hours of operation, something the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested.
Compared with the 2018 general election, more than two dozen Florida counties are expanding the number of days they’ll offer early voting, including Pasco County. Thirteen counties are offering early voting for the maximum of 12 hours a day on all 14 available days. That includes Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties.
About two dozen counties increased the number of sites offered, including Hillsborough County, which will have 26 early voting sites compared to 20 in 2018, and Pasco, which is increasing its early voting sites to 14.
Unlike neighboring Hillsborough County, which added Amalie Arena and Raymond James Stadium as early voting sites, Pinellas turned down an offer this summer from the Tampa Bay Rays to use Tropicana Field as an early voting site, instead opting to use it as a spot for mail ballot drop-offs.
Pinellas County continues to have the lowest number of early voting sites per voter of any county. It has resisted a substantial increase of its early voting program despite some criticism, choosing instead to emphasize vote-by-mail ballots.
Late last month, two local chapters of the League of Women Voters sent Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus a letter requesting more early voting sites. It asked specifically for sites in or near lower-income areas in Tarpon Springs, Highpoint and Lealman and noted that transportation can be an issue for some voters.
Bill Jonson, president of the League of Women Voters of North Pinellas County, noted that Pinellas is a leader in the state in promoting vote-by-mail. But he said the letter was in response to concerns from members that “we have fewer early voting opportunities than our surrounding counties.”
Marcus said her office takes into consideration “accessibility for all of our Pinellas County voters,” whether that be early voting, mail ballots or voting at polling places on the traditional Election Day.
It’s not clear how high turnout will be for those voting in person before Nov. 3. Many counties have been aggressively promoting the vote-by-mail option, leading to a record number of mail ballot requests this election. With less than three weeks to go until Election Day, more than 2 million mail ballots had already been returned.
But elections officials are preparing for the likelihood that unfounded attacks by President Donald Trump and his surrogates about widespread mail ballot fraud, as well as concerns about the U.S. Postal Service or higher rejection rates for mail ballots, could sway some to opt for in-person voting. (Trump, who himself has voted by mail in Florida, has also said that Florida’s mail ballots system is “safe and secure.”)
Worries about crowds on Election Day could also lead some people who typically vote that day to instead choose to vote early.
Polls have shown that Republicans — who in years past have held an edge in Florida in voting by mail ― are much more likely than Democrats this year to vote in person, likely in part because of the president’s comments.
Of the Florida mail ballots returned so far, about half have been from Democrats and roughly 30 percent have been from Republicans.
Elections officials have warned that there may be lines at early voting sites, particularly on the first day that in-person voting begins or the final days of early voting. But it’s doubtful that Florida will see some of the hours-long lines during early voting seen in states like Georgia or Texas.
It’s possible that early in-person voting could be quiet. During Florida’s August primary, it accounted for only about 14 percent of total ballots cast. Mail ballots accounted for 60 percent.
Some of the Florida voters who requested mail ballots for the general election may have done so “as insurance” but may be feeling good about voting in person and will do that instead, said Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office.
Kramer said her office’s website will have updated wait times for each early voting site, so voters can check there to avoid waiting in line.
Elections officials across the state and country have worked to install additional safety procedures during the pandemic, including social distancing, masks for poll workers and regular cleaning of machines and voting booths. Some counties are providing each voter their own pen or using plexiglass dividers.
Florida’s case numbers, which had been relatively stable, have started increasing in recent days. Some have predicted the U.S. could see another wave of coronavirus cases as Election Day nears.
Officials have also been reviewing their security plans for in-person voting, working with law enforcement organizations and others in preparation for any potential disruptions or voter intimidation.
There has been increased concern among some in recent months about potential issues at voting sites, particularly after Trump, during the Sept. 29 presidential debate, urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for evidence of voter fraud.
“Making sure our voters are safe while casting a ballot is paramount,” said Marcus. She said it’s important to maintain order at the polls but also said she doesn’t want the presence of law enforcement to deter anyone from feeling like they can freely vote.
Marcus said her office has a “heightened alertness” this year about physical security and smooth in-person voting. She said poll workers have been trained to handle various scenarios and that Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies will be stationed at the elections office as part of a “command center where we can immediately be in contact with them and they can do what they need to do to respond to a situation.”
She also noted some increased security measures at the main elections office, including adding a second sheriff’s deputy assigned to the elections office.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri recently told the Tampa Bay Times' editorial board that his office will probably assign some deputies, dressed as civilians, to “keep an eye” on early voting sites in the county.
“We’ll have people in the area that are dedicated in case something needs to be done,” Gualtieri said. “Of course, we hope it doesn’t.”
Unlike with Election Day, which requires voters to cast ballots only at their assigned precincts, voters can choose to go to any early voting site in the county.
Each early voting site will have a drop box for voters who want to turn in their mail ballots that way instead of putting them in the mail. Drop boxes are also located at elections offices. Some counties, like Pinellas, are also setting up drop boxes at other locations, as well.
Voters wanting to vote in person must bring a valid photo ID and signature verification.
Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.
Early voting times and locations
CITRUS: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Oct. 19-31
• Central Ridge Library, 425 W. Roosevelt Blvd., Beverly Hills
• Crystal River Elections Office, 1500 N. Meadowcrest Blvd., Crystal River
• Homosassa Public Library, 4100 S. Grandmarch Ave., Homosassa
• Inverness City Hall, 212 W. Main St., Inverness
HERNANDO: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Oct. 19-31
• South Brooksville Community Center, 601 E. Martin Luther King Blvd., Brooksville
• Supervisor of Elections branch office, 7443 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill
• East Hernando Library, 6457 Windmere Road, Brooksville
• Spring Hill Branch Library, 9220 Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill
• Hernando County Utilities Department, 15365 Cortez Blvd., Brooksville
HILLSBOROUGH: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Oct. 19-Nov. 1
• Apollo Beach Community Center, 664 Golf and Sea Blvd., Apollo Beach
• Austin Davis Public Library, 17808 Wayne Road, Odessa
• Bloomingdale Regional Public Library, 1906 Bloomingdale Ave., Valrico
• Bruton Memorial Library, 302 W McLendon St., Plant City, FL 33563
• C. Blythe Andrews, Jr. Public Library, 2607 E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Tampa
• Fred B. Karl County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
• Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library, 3910 S. Manhattan Ave., Tampa
• Jimmie B. Keel Regional Public Library, 2902 W. Bearss Ave., Tampa
• Maureen B. Gauzza Public Library, 11211 Countryway Blvd., Tampa
• New Tampa Regional Library, 10001 Cross Creek Blvd., Tampa
• North Tampa Branch Library, 8916 N Blvd., Tampa
• Northdale Recreation Center, 15550 Spring Pine Drive, Tampa
• Port Tampa Community Center, 4702 W. McCoy St., Tampa
• Providence West Community Center, 5405 Providence Road, Riverview
• Riverview Branch Library, 10509 Riverview Drive, Riverview
• Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, 2514 N. Falkenburg Road, Tampa
• SouthShore Regional Library, 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin
• Northwest Elections Office, 4575 Gunn Highway, Tampa
• Southeast Elections Office, 10020 S U.S. Highway 301, Riverview
• USF TECO Hall (David C. Anchin Center), 4110 USF Apple Drive, Tampa
• Temple Terrace Public Library, 202 Bullard Parkway, Temple Terrace
• Town ‘N Country Regional Public Library, 7606 Paula Drive, Tampa
• West Tampa Branch Library, 2312 W. Union St., Tampa
• University Area Community Center, 14013 N. 22nd St., Tampa
• Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa
• Raymond James Stadium, 4201 N. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa
MANATEE: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Oct. 19-Nov. 1
• Lakewood Ranch Town Hall, 8175 Lakewood Ranch Blvd., Lakewood Ranch
• Manatee County Utilities Administration, 4410 66th St. W, Bradenton
• Palmetto Library, 923 6th St. W, Palmetto
• Rocky Bluff Library, 6750 U.S. Highway 301, Ellenton
• Supervisor of Elections Office, 600 301 Blvd. W, Suite 118, Bradenton
• FL Department of Transportation Operations Center, 14000 State Road 64 E., Bradenton
PASCO: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Oct. 19-31
• West Pasco Government Center, 8731 Citizens Drive, New Port Richey
• East Pasco Government Center, 14236 6th St., Dade City
• Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex, 3032 Collier Parkway, Land O' Lakes
• Hudson Library, 8012 Library Road, Hudson
• New River Library, 34043 State Road 54, Wesley Chapel
• Odessa Community Center, 1627 Chesapeake Drive, Odessa
• Pasco County Utilities Administration Building, 19420 Central Blvd., Land O' Lakes
• Regency Park Library, 9701 Little Road, New Port Richey
• South Holiday Library, 4649 Mile Stretch Drive, Holiday
• Advent Health Center Ice, 3173 Cypress Ridge Blvd., Wesley Chapel
• Alice Hall Community Center, 38116 5th Ave., Zephyrhills
• Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County, 3021 Sports Coast Way, Wesley Chapel
• Veterans Memorial Park, 14333 Hicks Road, Hudson
• J. Ben Harrill Recreation Complex, 2830 Gulf Trace Blvd., Holiday
PINELLAS: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Oct. 19-Nov. 1
• Supervisor of Elections Office - Election Service Center, 13001 Starkey Road, Largo
• Supervisor of Elections Office - County Courthouse, 315 Court St. Room 117, Clearwater
• Supervisor of Elections Office - County Building, 501 First Ave. N., St. Petersburg
• The Centre of Palm Harbor, 1500 16th St., Palm Harbor
• SPC Allstate Center, 3200 34th St. S., St. Petersburg
POLK: 7 a.m. to 7 pm., Oct. 19-Nov. 1
• Polk Street Community Center, 1255 Polk St., Bartow
• Polk County Sheriffs Northeast District Office, 1100 Dunson Road, Davenport
• Haines City Library, 111 N. 6th St., Haines City
• Polk County Government Center, 930 E. Parker St., Lakeland
• Simpson Park Community Center, 1725 Martin L. King Jr. Ave., Lakeland
• James P. Austin Community Center, 315 Doctor MLK Jr. Blvd., Lake Wales
• Mulberry Civic Center, 901 N.E. 5th St., Mulberry
• Poinciana Community Center, 395 Marigold Ave., Poinciana
• Gill Jones Northeast Polk County Government Center, 3425 Lake Alfred Road, Winter Haven
SARASOTA: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Oct. 19-Nov. 1
• Supervisor of Elections Office - Sarasota, 2001 Adams Lane, Sarasota
• Supervisor of Elections Office - Venice, R.L. Anderson Administration Building, 4000 Tamiami Trail S., Venice
• Supervisor of Elections Office - North Port, Biscayne Plaza, 13640 Tamiami Trail, North Port
• Sarasota Square Mall, 8201 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
• North Sarasota Library, 2801 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
• Fruitville Library, 100 Apex Road, Sarasota
• Shannon Staub Library, 4675 Career Lane, North Port
• Bee Ridge Park, 4430 S. Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
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