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Farewell, voting booth? Mail voting set to explode in Florida

“It’s going to have an impact on voting patterns,” says one strategist.
Mail ballots wait to be loaded up at the Supervisor of Elections Office in Largo last year.
Mail ballots wait to be loaded up at the Supervisor of Elections Office in Largo last year. [ Times (2012) ]
Published Apr. 22, 2020
Updated Apr. 22, 2020

In Florida, a state where the steady rise of mail voting has dramatically transformed the campaign season over the last 20 years, the novel coronavirus could fast-forward the evolution of elections.

Elections supervisors and political organizations around the state asked Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis weeks ago to provide flexibility under state law to help them administer the upcoming elections. They’re still waiting for an answer, and in the meantime are widely encouraging voting at home — even as President Donald Trump, a Florida resident, has called for restrictions.

“My push for vote by mail isn’t political in any way,” said Wendy Sartory Link, elections supervisor in Palm Beach County, Trump’s home county. “It’s just safety. It’s a safety-driven measure.”

But a significant spike in mail voting in the nation’s largest swing state could have political implications for the 2020 elections and affect campaigns for years to come by pushing a larger percentage of the vote into the weeks before Election Day.

“It’s going to have an impact on voting patterns,” said Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based Democratic strategist who also believes increased mail voting would place new stresses on campaigns.

Pushed by political parties and candidates, mail ballots have slowly grown in popularity in Florida since state lawmakers made them universally available in 2002. In recent elections, about one-third of the vote has come from mail ballots and another third from in-person early voting sites, with the remaining third cast on Election Day. That’s turned what was once a single day of voting into a month-long marathon, forcing campaigns to alter strategies and spend money and resources on courting mail voters.

In the March 17 presidential preference primary — when voters arrived at polling places wearing masks and gloves to help ward off the spread of the virus — mail voting spiked. Fully half the votes cast in that election were by mail ballot.

With the virus not under control and predictions about when it will be suppressed still uncertain, election supervisors are now bracing for similar mail voting percentages in August, November and beyond.

Supervisors say it’s impossible to know for sure how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the primary on Aug. 18 and the general election on Nov. 3. But while they wait for Gov. Ron DeSantis to decide how — or whether — he’ll accommodate requests to allow more flexibility in the upcoming elections than otherwise allowed by state law, the supervisors’ own offices are advertising the method as a safe alternative to showing up at the polls.

“I think the number of mail-in ballots are obviously going to explode,” Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine, a member of the count’s elections canvassing board, said during a Tuesday commission meeting.

Broward Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci has asked county commissioners for money to send mail voting request forms to more than 1 million voters who have yet to sign up to receive a ballot through the postal service. Last presidential election, roughly 280,000 ballots were mailed in the county — Florida’s bluest — and most were returned.

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Antonacci, an appointee of former Gov. Rick Scott, has asked for more than $1 million to help pay for postage, printing, equipment and staffing to process the ballots, which must be hand-fed into machines and slowed down the count during the 2018 elections. He said it’s a “fair estimate” that his office will receive 500,000 mail ballot requests before November.

Like Antonacci, Link, the Palm Beach County supervisor, is seeking tax money to send vote-by-mail forms to all of the county’s roughly 981,000 voters. So is Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Christina White, who expects her mail ballot numbers to increase from 400,000 in 2016 to 700,000 this year in a county of 1.5 million voters.

“I don’t know it will get that high. But I would rather aim too high and have the materials in hand,” she said in an interview.

Mail voting has become a politically charged issue in 2020.

President Trump has railed against what he said are lax mail voting laws — even though he took advantage of Florida’s policies to vote by mail last month in his hometown of Palm Beach during the presidential primary. Democrats, meanwhile, have urged governors around the country — including DeSantis — to provide options other than in-person voting by automatically sending mail ballots to every voter.

Ulvert, the Democratic consultant, is among a number of strategists who believe an uptick in mail voting will benefit Democratic candidates, though he said it will pose challenges for cash-poor campaigns at a time when it has been difficult to raise campaign cash.

In Wisconsin, where the courts forced the April 7 presidential primary to be held in-person, health officials have identified six voters and one poll worker who may have contracted COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, during voting, according to the Associated Press. In Broward County, two poll workers tested positive after the March 17 primary, though it’s not known if they were sick during the election or if their illnesses were in any way linked to in-person voting.

Florida’s elections supervisors told DeSantis two weeks ago that they don’t believe Florida is capable of holding an election entirely by mail. But hoping for guidance and flexibility, they urged him to issue an executive order granting extended early voting and allowing them to brace for poll worker shortages by establishing Election Day voting centers where any registered voter can cast a ballot as long as they live in the county.

Mark Ard, a spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, said Tuesday that the state’s Division of Elections is working with supervisors to address their concerns. But supervisors say they’ve received no response as to how — or whether — he’ll act. And a Thursday conference call with the state’s 67 elections supervisors with the Florida Division of Elections has been postponed until May 7.

“We need an answer this week,” said Tammy Jones, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. “The sooner we can get an answer the better. I know the governor has had a lot on his plate. But we’re in a real predicament.”

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