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Coronavirus is generating a surge of interest in voting by mail in the 2020 presidential election. It’s not a panacea

The $2 trillion coronavirus response package signed into law Friday contains $400 million to improve elections, a figure many experts say pales in comparison to what’s needed.

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The emergence and spread of the new coronavirus — and the resulting social distancing and caution about what you touch — is generating a surge of interest in voting by mail. Everyday citizens and voting-rights activists see it as safer for the public and election workers.

The announcement on Thursday that two poll workers from Broward County have tested positive for coronavirus — one who handled people's driver's licenses as part of the check-in and identification process for Florida's March 17 primary — is sure to feed the mail voting vs. in-person voting debate.

Advocates of expanded voting by mail want the discussion now — six months before Election Day — not when the presidential election is much closer, decisions would be rushed, and every move would be viewed with suspicion that it's a way to benefit one of the candidates.

The $2 trillion coronavirus response package signed into law Friday contains $400 million to improve elections, a figure many experts say pales in comparison to what's needed.

CHANGING ATTITUDES

Betsy Silverfine, of Delray Beach, says it's time.

Silverfine doesn't really like the idea of voting by mail. She's always voted on Election Day and when her children, now 11 and 13, were younger she'd always bring them to her polling place as a way to show that everyone has a right and duty to vote.

But, she said, times have changed with coronavirus. For the March 17 presidential primary, she literally took election safety into her own hands. Silverfine and her husband, Russell Levine, brought their own pen, gloves and wipes with them to their polling place, and didn't touch anything but the ballot itself.

In a world where coronavirus is present, she said she would be "more than open" to voting by mail for the first time. "We need to prepare something for the American people for the major elections. We can't wait till October to figure this out," Silverfine said.

Wendy Sartory Link, the supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County, said she's already assuming many voters will feel the way Silverfine does.

Link had originally planned to order 300,000 mail ballot envelopes for the August primary. She's now upped that order to 1 million. If demand doesn't surge, any excess can be used in November. The county has 978,000 registered voters.

FLORIDA RULES

Florida is already halfway there. As part of the election law changes passed after the chaotic conclusion to the 2000 George W. Bush-Al Gore presidential election, the state converted absentee balloting — which used to require a reason, such as being out of town on Election Day — to no-excuses voting by mail.

More recently, some Florida counties have started paying the return postage for their residents to send back their mail ballots.

In Florida, the law allows a voter to request a vote-by-mail ballot, a request that stays in effect for the next two years. A voter can choose to use the mail ballot or go to a regional early voting site leading up to the election, or vote in a neighborhood polling place on Election Day.

Voting before Election Day has surged in popularity as time-starved voters have embraced the convenience. In the 2016 presidential election, 2.7 million Floridians voted by mail, 3.9 million at early voting sites and 3 million at neighborhood polling places on Election Day.

The shift to mail voting was especially pronounced as coronavirus concerns were increasing leading up to Florida's March 17 presidential preference primary. Just as the candidates on the Democratic side — where all the 2020 primary action has taken place — were gearing up for Florida, concern over coronavirus skyrocketed and candidates scaled back their campaigns while some people sought to have the primary delayed.

Florida voters moved in droves to vote by mail.

A total of 694,255 Democrats in Florida voted by mail in the presidential primary, up 33% from 2016. Early voting at regional sites in each county was up 20%. But in-person voting on primary day was down about 25%.

On the Republican side, turnout was down, which isn't surprising because President Donald Trump had no real competition. Mail ballots were used by 682,264 Republicans, down 4.4% from 2016. Republican voting at regional sites was down 57%, and voting on primary day plunged almost 70%.

DRAWBACKS

While it's becoming ever more popular, and is increasingly seen as a necessity by some, voting by mail isn't a panacea. University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith said voting by mail is problematic in ways many people don't realize.

Unlike Election Day voting, when someone goes to a polling place and presents an ID, the security check for voting by mail is a signature. People's signatures change over time, and that results in rejections of ballots, said Smith, a widely recognized expert on voting behavior who has extensively studied voting by mail.

"We have very high rates of rejection for certain demographic groups, namely younger voters and people of color," Smith said.

"The signature is no longer a valid currency in today's life" for younger voters, Smith said.

"Boomers like me are writing checks. Millennials and Gen X and Gen Z's are Venmoing. You don't need to have a signature. It means nothing with respect to your identity. Squiggling your fingers on a touch pad at Publix is how many younger voters view their signature," Smith said.

As a result, younger Florida voters are five times more likely than the general population to have their ballots rejected.

Also, Smith said, his research has found Latinos and African Americans are much more likely to have their ballots rejected. "I'm sure what the full explanation is," but he said it's not fair to blame the voters. The reason? The rejection rates differ greatly among Florida's 67 counties. If they had the same standard, people wouldn't have different rejection rates.

Other drawbacks:

— When an in-person voter inserts a ballot into the scanner at an early voting site or neighborhood polling place, the voter is notified if a stray mark is read as an inadvertent extra vote in a particular race. That allows the voter to correct it. That can't happen with mail ballots.

— Florida's deadline for returning mail ballots is strict. The ballot must be in the hands of a voter's county supervisor of elections office by 7 p.m. on Election Day — and postmarks don't count. Every election, ballots arrive at elections offices after the election and they can't be counted.

Hannah Fried, national campaign director of All Voting is Local, a campaign affiliated with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and other civil rights organizations said expanded access to vote by mail would help every voter to vote.

But, Fried said, it isn't a solution by itself. "It's so critical to ensure in-person voting options for people this year and not just default to vote by mail. It's also why it's so important for state and local elections officials to undertake widespread aggressive voter education campaigns."

Peter Antonacci, Broward supervisor of elections, said the law gives Florida voters choices. “I have been encouraging (vote by mail) but cannot require any voter to do so,” he said by email.

States conduct elections, and have a range of rules. Some automatically send a mail ballot to all voters. Others don’t allow mail voting unless there’s a specific reason a voter can’t show up. Florida is between the two ends of the spectrum, making mail ballots available to any voter who asks, but not sending them automatically.

Citing the pandemic, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced legislation this month to require voting by mail in all states. There are objections to that approach. U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., asked on Twitter last week: "what does forcing all states to have early voting have to do with coronavirus?"

The federal coronavirus response legislation contains $400 million to help cover the costs of new polling places to help reduce crowding and increasing vote by mail and online voter registration. The national League of Women Voters called it a "mere fraction of what is needed for all voters to safely cast their ballot with confidence this November."

The Brennan Center estimated the cost of making sure vote by mail is an option for every U.S. voter would cost from $982 million to $1.4 billion. It estimated the cost of improvements to in-person voting would cost $271.4 million.

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By Anthony Man, Sun Sentinel (TNS)

©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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