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Drop boxes: Florida voters are using them to deliver mail ballots

Three elections offices in Pinellas County have been accepting dropped off ballots since Sept. 18. Overall, 76,890 mail ballots have been dropped off by voters since ballots were sent out for the November election, equating to roughly 45 percent of all mail ballots returned.

Record numbers of Florida residents turned out Monday for the first day of in-person early voting, in some cases contending with long lines and maskless voters to ensure their vote was counted. But tens of thousands of others took a different approach: bringing their vote-by-mail ballots directly to drop boxes stationed at early voting sites.

In Pinellas County, where over 50 percent of all ballots cast in the 2016 general election were via mail — the highest rate in Florida — more than 30,000 voters dropped off mail ballots at elections offices or mail ballot drop boxes Monday, including 402 ballots at the drive-through location at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

Three elections offices in Pinellas County have also been accepting dropped off ballots since Sept. 18. Overall, 76,890 mail ballots have been dropped off by voters since ballots were sent out for the November election, equating to roughly 45 percent of all mail ballots returned.

Hillsborough County received 13,593 ballots through the drop boxes Monday. Before that, the county was averaging about 3,000 ballots being delivered in person, according to Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections spokeswoman Gerri Kramer. As of Tuesday morning, Kramer said 58,392 mail ballots had come into drop boxes.

Dan Smith, a political science professor and election expert at the University of Florida, said the drop boxes are “essential” as voters turn to mail voting in unprecedented numbers due to worries about COVID-19 and about potential delays in mail delivery by the U.S. Postal Service.

Drop boxes have other advantages, too, Smith said, including the opportunity for election workers to help voters “cure” any issues with their mail ballots on the spot — like a missing signature or someone accidentally going to a polling site in the wrong county.

“It makes perfect sense that we’re seeing record use of drop boxes,” Smith told the Miami Herald. “I think this is essential in terms of allowing voters to have as many options to get their mail ballots counted as possible.”

Many counties in Florida don’t report how many ballots they receive via drop box as a separate category from other vote-by-mail ballots. Officials in Broward County and Palm Beach County said the data wasn’t immediately available Tuesday. But several counties that do track drop-off numbers have seen big returns so far.

Observers of county-level election data in Florida noted that several large urban counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, processed a relatively high number of mail ballots Tuesday compared with previous days. Democratic strategist Steve Schale wrote in a blog post that 54,000 mail ballots had been processed Tuesday in Pinellas and Hillsborough, “far more than any day since [mail] ballots have started being returned to election offices.”

“Vote by mail numbers should really jump from the drop box collections,” Schale wrote.

In Miami-Dade County, elections officials collected 27,765 ballots at the drop boxes Monday, which were set up at all 33 early voting sites. There were more dropped-off ballots on Monday than in the entire August primary, when a total of 19,055 Miami-Dade voters used the county’s expanded drop-off system over the 14 days of early voting.

Put another way: nearly 10 percent of Miami-Dade voters who have already voted by mail did so via the drop boxes on Monday. The county had tallied about 233,000 mail votes as of Monday morning, according to state data, on pace to shatter Miami-Dade’s 2016 vote-by-mail total of 305,000. That tally doesn’t include the drop box totals from Monday, which will be reflected in state data Wednesday.

Democrats have built a lead of about 480,000 votes over Republicans in Florida through mail voting, but Republicans are expected to close much, if not all, of the gap with in-person early voting and on Election Day.

In Miami-Dade, most of the drop boxes opened to voters Monday at 7 a.m. in conjunction with early voting hours. But voters were allowed to hand in their mail ballots individually at the county’s main elections office in Doral and its office at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami starting Oct. 2, according to deputy elections supervisor Suzy Trutie.

Three days later, “due to the volume,” elections officials placed a drop box in the front of the elections department building. Trutie said the number of ballots placed into that box wasn’t separately tallied.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

VOTER GUIDE: Access the Tampa Bay Times’ Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.

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

AMENDMENTS: State constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained.

FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.

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?

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