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Florida elections officials seek direction from DeSantis on how to proceed

With deadlines bearing down in a matter of weeks, elections officials say they need the state to explain how — and whether — election laws will be altered so they can make decisions about the way the vote will occur in Florida.
Voters cast their ballots for the Florida presidential primary, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Bonita Springs, Fla. Floridians are voting across the state as election officials manage losses of poll workers and changes to polling places because of the coronavirus.
Voters cast their ballots for the Florida presidential primary, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Bonita Springs, Fla. Floridians are voting across the state as election officials manage losses of poll workers and changes to polling places because of the coronavirus. [ ELISE AMENDOLA | AP ]
Published Apr. 8, 2020|Updated Apr. 8, 2020

Only a few weeks removed from a chaotic presidential primary held amid a pandemic, county election officials in Florida are already preparing for the possibility of unwanted encores during votes set for August and November.

Or at least, they’re trying.

Related: Can Florida hold elections in the coronavirus era?

Without knowing whether coronavirus will still be causing widespread disruption, elections supervisors across the state are attempting to make plans for elections that could include vast new numbers of mail ballots, poll workers suddenly in risky positions and landlords who may no longer welcome polling places on their property.

And with deadlines bearing down in a matter of weeks, they say they need the state to explain how — and whether — election laws will be altered so they can make decisions about the way the vote will occur in Florida.

“There’s so much unknown at this point that it’s close to impossible to have any solid plans for August,” said Polk County Supervisor Lori Edwards. “We need certainty and we need it soon so we can gather the resources and make our plans as needed.”

Though Florida’s Aug. 18 primary and Nov. 3 general election are months away, supervisors are already gaming out scenarios for holding elections in their counties.

In Jacksonville, Duval County Supervisor Mike Hogan is preparing for the possibility that he’ll need to replace more than half his poll workers, 60% of whom are older than 65, making them more vulnerable to serious complications from the virus. And in Miami-Dade County, Supervisor Christina White is worried about whether she’ll be able to find 600 landlords willing to host Election Day precincts and the crowds of people that might come with that responsibility.

Meanwhile, her staff is already crafting projections for how much mail voting will likely increase in August — and ordering double that number of ballots. Luckily, White said she ordered new high-speed machines — before the outbreak occurred — to help perform the time-consuming task of processing mail ballots. But her counterpart in Broward County, Pete Antonacci, is preparing to ask county commissioners for more money just to help with the cost of postage and staff.

“I think we’re all wondering what the future of elections are going to look like for this year,” said White.

Hoping to secure a clearer outlook, the association overseeing all the state’s local election offices sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday requesting that he give supervisors new flexibility not currently afforded by state law. In the letter, Tammy Jones, the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, asked that the governor give counties the ability to begin early voting a week earlier than allowed by statute and continue to operate those early voting centers on Election Day.

Jones also asked for more lead time for supervisors to send out mail ballots.

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“We’re not trying to rewrite the law,” she said in an interview. “This is only to get us through this year.”

Jones, the supervisor of elections in Levy County in Florida’s Big Bend, also told DeSantis that “Florida is not in a position at this time to conduct an all-mail ballot election this year.” She wrote that supervisors need to know “as soon as possible” how the state will proceed with the August and November elections in order to have enough time to prepare.

“It’s really tough to ask for these things now,” said Jones, acknowledging the crisis facing DeSantis as he tries to steer the state through a novel coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 250 people in Florida and forced a statewide lockdown. “But we know they’re needed, because peoples’ lives are at risk.”

Jones said urgency is needed because the list of tasks to keep elections running smoothly is long: Supervisors have to set the ballots, prepare their voter databases, order mail ballots, test their machines and train poll workers, among other responsibilities. Mail ballots must be sent to voters by July 16 and printed weeks before that.

Jones said the supervisors’ association believes DeSantis can make the changes by executive order. She said she’s already spoken to Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

“The Department of State is reviewing these concerns and will continue working with local supervisors of elections,” said Mark Ard, a spokesman for Lee.

Both DeSantis and Lee resisted calls to postpone the state’s March 17 presidential primary, with Lee declaring the election a success after the polls closed. Two poll workers in Broward County later tested positive for COVID-19, but DeSantis has said he does not regret moving forward with the election.

At the very least, supervisors who spoke to the Miami Herald said they want to avoid a repeat of last-minute problems that complicated Florida’s presidential primary last month.

The election began with mail voting weeks before Florida reported its first coronavirus case only to climax with an Election Day held amid a scramble to move precincts from nursing homes and replace skittish poll workers who bowed out. Though models suggest the worst of Florida’s outbreak will be long over by the time the August elections roll around, experts warn that new outbreaks remain a possibility. With only a few months of experience to draw from on the virus, no one is sure when public gatherings will be advisable.

And while the August primary, like the March election, is all but certain to be a low turnout affair, supervisors worry especially about what might happen if the novel coronavirus remains a problem in November, when 10 million ballots could be cast in Florida, a state that has played a decisive role in many presidential elections.

“There are two immutable facts. Less and less community locations are willing to open their doors to Florida’s voters,” said Edwards, the Polk County supervisor, who oversaw six small municipal elections Tuesday. “And the other fact — and it’s completely understandable — is that there are a lot less people who are willing to volunteer to work as poll workers on Election Day.”

Efforts to change voting methods in other states have led to mixed results. Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming were able to alter their upcoming presidential primaries so that they were conducted entirely by mail. But Wisconsin’s Democratic governor was overruled by the state’s supreme court when he tried to postpone in-person voting Monday, leading the state to carry out the election on Tuesday despite a poll worker shortage that forced the city of Milwaukee to funnel voters through just five precincts.

While it’s unlikely that DeSantis would consider allowing an election to be conducted entirely by mail — Republicans have resisted the idea — elections supervisors say they’re doing what they can to prepare for that scenario. Hogan, the Duval County supervisor, said he’s considering ordering 670,000 mail ballots — one for every Duval County voter — just in case elections are shifted entirely to mail. He said his vendor told him it would take six to nine weeks to print them all.

Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer is circulating a promotional video encouraging voters to request mail ballots.

“We expect to get a big bump in vote by mail. I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t,” he said. “We send out about 260,000 in a general election and it wouldn’t surprise me to see that number double.”

There remains a possibility that the state Legislature could pass new election legislation this year during a special session, which has been considered due to the hole coronavirus has blown in the state’s 2021 budget. State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said some tweaks could be made to state election law if legislative leaders decide to consider policy changes along with budget.

“Some election stuff may be included in the call [for a special session] to deal with specifically what you’re talking about,” he said. “I don’t know what the answers are going to be but I do know there’s probably going to have to be some flexibility.”

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