Floridians streamed into polling places on the final day of voting for the 2020 general election, with enthusiasm high in Tampa Bay despite a major shift toward people choosing to vote before Election Day.
Tuesday capped off voting in an extraordinary election year that has been fundamentally reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic and by an incumbent president who has been unafraid to buck conventional political norms.
More than 9 million Floridians had cast ballots before Tuesday. But a steady stream of final-day voters helped increase turnout further, with few reports of long lines or major disruptions.
Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties all reported higher turnout rates than in any election since at least 1996, with voters eager for their chance to cast a ballot in this highly charged presidential election year.
That included some voters who rarely opt to go to the polls — or who never have voted before.
Gulfport resident Mickey Palmieri, 50, said he has never voted before in an election, but felt inspired this year to “just give my voice.”
He cast his ballot for President Donald Trump at the Gulfport City Hall polling place on Tuesday afternoon. He said the experience made him a little nervous, but friendly poll workers reassured him.
In Hillsborough County, Chase Palmer, a graduate student studying art, decided he also needed to make his voice heard in this election after sitting out the 2016 presidential election. He dropped off his mail ballot Tuesday, deciding against voting in person to avoid potential crowds.
“I made the mistake in 2016 to stay home and not vote,” said Palmer, who declined to say who he voted for. “The era of uninvolvement is over.”
For months, elections officials, political parties and others aggressively promoted early voting options as a way to avoid potential crowds on Election Day. Vote-by-mail, in particular, was touted as a safe alternative to in-person voting — leading to record numbers of Floridians requesting and casting mail ballots this year.
It was too soon to tell how many voters mailed ballots that will arrive too late to be counted. But in Miami-Dade County, special agents with the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General discovered a small number of undelivered ballots sitting in a post office last week after reports of a backlog of mail at the facility.
In a court filing, the Postal Service revealed that 300,000 ballots nationwide hadn’t been scanned to confirm they were delivered, even though the postal service says they were processed. That led to a court order Tuesday morning to sweep mail-processing facilities in more than a dozen states, including parts of Florida, for missing election ballots. The Postal Service said Tuesday afternoon that it couldn’t complete the sweep by the end of the day.
Get insights into Florida politics
Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Drivers with mail ballots pulled into a driveway outside the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office in Largo all afternoon and into the evening to drop their ballots by hand -- either not trusting or too late to use the postal service. Others showed up at the elections office to request late mail ballots in person and to cast them immediately.
Democrats were more likely than Republicans to vote by mail in Florida this election — a switch from previous years. That can be traced at least partially to differing attitudes toward the coronavirus and to unfounded attacks on mail voting by Trump.
Republicans, meanwhile, showed up in much greater numbers at polling places Tuesday.
Todd Lizzote, a 53-year-old welder who voted at the main library in St. Petersburg, says he waited until Election Day to vote. “I’m a traditional Republican and I always vote on Election Day,” he said.
He added that he voted for Trump “because I believe in my freedom.”
Despite concerns in some corners about the pandemic and the highly charged political atmosphere, in-person voting appears to have gone fairly smoothly in Florida. A few counties saw small technical glitches, a polling place in Indian River County shut down at the last minute because of the coronavirus and had to be moved, and there were scattered reports of misinformation or voters feeling harassed or intimidated.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received four complaint calls from the polling location at the Town N' Country Regional Library about trucks driving around the parking lot with flags and people blocking a driveway, but said it didn’t identify any criminal activity.
At the Jackson Heights Center polling site, a voter arrived who was “belligerent, seeming to be inebriated,” said Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough elections office. Kramer said the man filled out multiple ballots and yelled at and shoved a poll worker. The polling location was cleared out for several minutes. The man then calmed down and was able to cast a ballot, Kramer said.
Just 30 minutes after the state’s Panhandle polls closed, Secretary of State Laurel Lee said there were hardly any issues across the state’s more than 6,000 polling sites Tuesday.
Despite fears of intimidation at the polls, long lines and other mayhem, Lee said Floridians set an “example” for the rest of the country Tuesday.
“Florida voters followed the law and treated one another with respect and courtesy at the polls,” Lee said. And she urged that trend to continue Wednesday.
Many voters reported pleasant experiences casting their ballots Tuesday.
Friends Leah Phillips, 66, and Mark Zimmerman, 59, went to vote in Clearwater together, even though their views could not be more different. Leah voted for Trump in 2016 but voted for former Vice President Joe Biden this year. She said Trump could have handled the pandemic better and said, “I don’t like the lies. I believe in God and I believe what comes out of your mouth needs to match the truth,” she said.
Zimmerman is a 2016 and 2020 Trump voter. He wants “to make sure life stays the way it is.” “I’m very happy with what (Trump)'s done,” he said.
Married couple Daniel Hernández, 59, and Denise Hernández, 56, also went together to the polls Tuesday. They both voted for Biden.
“I think Biden cares more,” Daniel Hernández said. “He’s not a businessman. Businessmen tend to gear towards the business and the money side of it. Biden cares more for the families.”
A key factor in Florida’s role as the nation’s largest swing state is the sizable number of no-party-affiliated voters: roughly a quarter of registered voters.
Shelia Lepsky is one of them. The 65-year-old said she is not registered with a party but voted a straight Republican ballot.
A retired psychologist, she said she has concerns about Biden’s mental acuity. She also liked that Trump didn’t get the country into a war and backs the Second Amendment.
Lepsky opted to cast her ballot at the Gulfport Recreation Center, saying she didn’t trust the idea of putting her ballot in the mail.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic — with cases surging in Florida and across the nation — Lepsky said that she felt totally comfortable, saying she thought voting booths were appropriately far apart and there was hand sanitizer.
“I’m leery about the mail system,” she said, wearing a white mask. “I think voting in person is the best way to make sure my vote counts.”
Tampa Bay Times reporters Josh Solomon, Zachary T. Sampson, Bailey LeFever, Juan Carlos Chavez, Tracey McManus, Divya Kumar and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
DECLARING WINNERS: How the Associated Press makes election calls, a Q&A
WHAT TO WATCH: What’s on TV for election night, from news to comedian commentators
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the elections in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription. Or click here to make a donation to the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund.