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Bill Cowles is already worrying about August. And November.
“Since I left here at midnight (Wednesday), my mind has been thinking about what’s next,” the Orange County supervisor of elections said. “August is the future, and it’s coming quick.”
Cowles, like everyone else in the state — or the world, for that matter — has no idea what will happen with the spread of the novel coronavirus. But election officials across Florida are increasingly anxious about upcoming 2020 elections.
Tuesday’s presidential primary in Florida, one of the first state elections held since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, was a test case for the much larger and more high-stakes November general election.
Elections officials in some counties struggled to find enough poll workers as people shied away for fear of getting sick. Voter turnout plummeted, while some people showed up Tuesday toting their own masks, pens and hand sanitizers.
Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the last-minute closure of polling places at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Meanwhile, students were kicked off college campuses, many sent back home to counties where they weren’t registered to vote. Civil rights organizations are now suing the state, saying there should have been provisions to protect those voters.
Experts and advocates are warning that a massive number of voters across the country could be shut out of the election during this outbreak if Congress and states don’t take action. Florida’s August primary election and November general election may seem far off, but local officials say any emergency changes to voting need to happen soon or there won’t be enough time to prepare.
“Within the next 10 days we should have a hardcore plan for what we’re going to do,”said Mark Anderson, the supervisor of elections in Bay County.
The Florida Department of State, which oversees the elections system, has not publicly addressed its contingency plans for scenarios that are already being contemplated by experts and local election officials, such as:
• What if there’s a national lockdown?
• What if the U.S. Postal Service is shut down or severely diminished, hindering efforts to vote by mail?
• What if county election offices can’t open to count votes?
• What if a hurricane hits?
• What if there’s a massive shortage of poll workers?
• How do you train thousands of poll workers when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising against gatherings of more than 10 people?
“What we witnessed play out in the form of (the) pandemic is unlike anything we can prepare for in administering an election,” said Brian Corley, supervisor of elections in Pasco County.
Amid cascading school closures, canceled sports games (and everything, really) and a state of emergency, elections officials and others in Florida have begun floating ideas like moving to all-mail ballot elections.
Craig Latimer, supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County, saw more than a hundred poll workers cancel on Tuesday. His staff scrambled to relocate polling sites after host organizations said they no longer wanted to participate. Hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes need to be a regular part of his arsenal, he learned.
“That was a low-turnout election,” Latimer said. “What do you do in a high-turnout election?”
An election done completely by mail could solve some of those problems, Latimer said. More than a third of his county’s voters already vote by mail, and he thinks all voters would be open to it. He acknowledged, however, that it would be challenging for an entire state – or multiple states – to switch abruptly to exclusively mail ballots.
And it’s not a call county supervisors can make. Under state law, elections conducted entirely by mail ballot elections are only allowed for referendums, not for elections with candidates on the ballot.
In recent years, mail ballots have accounted for roughly a third of the votes cast statewide, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis. That percentage varies widely depending on the county. Voters in places like Pinellas County are much more likely to vote by mail than someone in Madison or Jefferson counties.
In the 2016 election, Floridians cast 2.7 million ballots by mail. If the November election was done entirely by mail, county election officials would need to prepare for at least three times as many ballots. That’s three times as many envelopes that need to be ordered, stuffed, sorted and counted. And three times the postage. Some counties pay the postage on mail ballots, but other counties do not.
Tammy Jones, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, said her association favors an election entirely by mail during the outbreak. But if that’s on the table, she said, that decision needs to happen soon.
Jones plans to discuss options with Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the decentralized elections system. Lee’s office did not provide a timeline for when it may consider emergency protocols for the coming elections.
Voting expert Daniel Smith warns that vote-by-mail isn’t a panacea. Ballots sent in by mail are far more likely to be rejected than those submitted at polling sites, often disproportionately disenfranchising students and minorities, according to Smith’s research at the University of Florida. And the percentage of ballots rejected varies wildly from county to county, suggesting inconsistencies in how ballots are scrutinized.
Lawmakers last year changed state law to give voters more time to remedy a rejected ballot, but local election offices still rejected more than 11,000 vote-by-mail ballots this year, according to early numbers crunched by Smith.
“If you think voting by mail is the solution, you are part of the problem,” Smith tweeted last week.
Tommy Hardee, the supervisor of election for Madison County, opposes a mail-only election, saying there needs to be flexibility. Anderson agreed, warning, “If you put all your eggs in one basket and it gets a hole in it, you don’t have a backup plan.”
Anderson would know better than most. He was in charge of voting in Bay County when Hurricane Michael crashed into the Panhandle as a Category 5 storm just weeks before the 2018 election. With roads blocked, electricity and cell service down and homes devastated, Anderson made the decision to let people submit ballots by email and fax. He was harshly criticized for it.
“Our emergency rule needs some scrubbing right now to allow us to properly operate in emergency conditions and protect the security of the election,” Anderson said.
Some counties also want the flexibility to set up voting centers — large voting sites spread across the county where anyone can vote, regardless of where they live in the county. These centers would reduce the number of poll workers needed. But other counties have expressed safety concerns about having large groups of voters in one place. Some are wary of pulling polling places from minority neighborhoods and college campuses.
Jones said elections officials have been preparing for cyberattacks and hurricanes, but something like a pandemic is unprecedented in recent times.
“We can’t stop elections from happening,” Jones said. “We need to think about the best thing for our voters.”
Is it certain we can’t stop elections from happening?
Ohioans were supposed to vote on the same day as Florida: March 17. But Ohio’s governor postponed his state’s primary because of coronavirus concerns. Louisiana delayed its primary as well. Other states are weighing whether to pause democracy for a disease.
What if the outbreak worsens, and states — or even President Donald Trump — deem it’s unsafe to vote?
“That is not an option for November,” said Max Feldman, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive policy institute. “By statute, the election needs to happen on that date, and we need to do whatever we can now to make sure people aren’t disenfranchised.”
The Brennan Center has urged Congress to include money for state voting systems in the coronavirus relief package. The organization recommends universal mail voting, expanded online voter registration, and special health precautions at polling places for people who can’t vote by mail. The total price tag would be $2 billion, the Brennan Center estimates.
At the federal level, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have proposed a bill to expand early in-person voting and vote-by-mail options in all states in response to concerns about the coronavirus. The bill would provide some federal funding for things like prepaid postage and for additional ballot scanners.
Election lawyer Marc Elias said it’s unclear at what capacity the post office will be operating, so states should consider accepting any mail ballots that are postmarked by Election Day. Elias, who often represents Democrats, recalled how the mail system slowed right around the 2018 general election after a South Florida man sent 13 pipe bombs to critics of the president, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and billionaire Tom Steyer. The delays caused many ballots to arrive after Election Day.
The Florida Democratic Party has called on DeSantis to expand vote-by-mail here ahead of the next rounds of voting.
“In this crisis, voting from the comfort and safety of your home would give a lot of people access to the vote that may be worried to come out and vote,” Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, recently told CNN.
Joe Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, rejected universal vote by mail as an option and said Florida doesn’t need to change its voting laws because of coronavirus. If people are worried about voting in person in August or November, they should ask for a vote-by-mail ballot today, he said.
“That’s the great thing about our system,” Gruters said. “If you want to wait you can, or you can go early. In Florida, we’re more prepared than most states.”
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