Florida elections officials urge DeSantis for help amid the pandemic

Concerns about contagion are forcing supervisors of elections to adjust their playbooks. So far, Gov. Ron DeSantis and state officials have provided little to no help.
Krystal Davis, 48, arranges voter privacy booths as she and others set up an early voting site in Tampa ahead of the 2020 presidential preference primary.
Krystal Davis, 48, arranges voter privacy booths as she and others set up an early voting site in Tampa ahead of the 2020 presidential preference primary. [ ALLISON ROSS | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 14, 2020|Updated May 15, 2020

As local election officials across Florida scramble to prepare for one of the most divisive presidential races in U.S. history, they say state officials are providing little support to help them brace for the added challenge of protecting voters in a global pandemic.

A chief concern among county elections officials is whether the state will take $20 million in federal funds awarded to protect the 2020 elections in the state as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that became law in March. On Wednesday, the Florida Supervisors of Elections, a bipartisan group that represents the state’s 67 county-level elections offices, urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to accept the money.

“I...want to express my concern that Florida is lagging behind nearly every other state in securing (federal) funding for elections,” Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer wrote for the group on Wednesday. “While we wait, the goods and services we need are becoming scarce.”

Related: UPDATE: After pleas, Florida requests federal coronavirus money for elections

Concerns about contagion are forcing supervisors of elections to adjust their playbooks. They’re emphasizing mail ballots more than ever as a safe alternative to in-person voting. They are reconfiguring polling places to accommodate social distancing. Some are considering reducing the number of polling sites.

They must recruit and train poll workers amid social distancing protocols. They’re bulk-buying an array of new election equipment: masks, hand sanitizer and clear partitions.

They have fewer than 100 days to ensure voting will be safe in time for Florida’s Aug. 18 primary.

As that date — and the Nov. 3 general election — moves ever closer, however, they say they’re still waiting for word from state officials who ostensibly provide oversight and support for Florida’s decentralized elections system.

Despite recommendations provided more than a month ago by the Florida Supervisors of Elections association, DeSantis has not yet signaled whether he will make any changes to how the 2020 elections are administered in the country’s largest swing state.

“We tried to impress upon the state that there’s a timeline here. You don’t get up Aug. 17 and have an election Aug. 18,” Latimer, who is also president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, said earlier this week.

In the letter sent Wednesday, the group pressed DeSantis to respond to a number of recommendations it had sent him more than a month ago to ease timelines for handling mail ballots and begin early voting a week earlier than state law currently allows. The association had also asked to be able to continue using those early voting centers on Election Day, allowing counties to choose whether to consolidate polling places with those early voting sites.

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The association asserts it’s not asking for any flexibility that hadn’t been provided before in other circumstances. It said its request for counties to designate additional early voting sites and to use those sites through Election Day is already allowed in Bay and Gulf counties because they are still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.

“Our request for executive action cannot wait any longer,” the letter stressed.

Without guidance from the state, elections supervisors are going it alone, some trying to anticipate numerous scenarios. A conference call last week with the 67 counties and the official who directly oversees the election system, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, yielded few answers beyond assurances that DeSantis and Lee had reviewed the group’s recommendations.

Latimer said he spoke with a staffer in the governor’s office Wednesday morning and said that there was “acknowledgement that this needs to be taken care of.”

Elections officials know Florida will be under the microscope come November, as it will likely be one of a handful of states that will decide who will be in the White House come January.

Any breakdown in how the vote is conducted could erode confidence in elections and democracy, particularly in the “extreme partisan polarization in which we find ourselves," said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and the co-director of the Healthy Elections project, a new effort that brings academics and election administration experts together to discuss best practices amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The pandemic poses an existential threat to American democracy,” Persily said. Nationwide “there is going to be a lot of disorder in the election. The question is, how critical will that disorder be and how will it affect the outcome?”

The Florida Department of State is working with the county supervisors to prepare for any issues that may arise for the August and November elections, said department spokesman Mark Ard.

He noted that the impact of the coronavirus is evolving.

“Rest assured, balancing the health and safety of Floridians while ensuring the right to vote is at the top of our minds,” Ard said earlier this week.

It’s unclear where the elections sit on the priority list for DeSantis now as he deals with the coronavirus outbreak as well as a massive failure of the state’s unemployment assistance system.

There’s a growing list of administrative details that require his immediate attention. Last month, when asked about DeSantis’ plan to appoint someone to fill the remaining term of Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who retired at the end of March, spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said the vacancy was under review. She added that the “state’s response to COVID-19 is our number one priority.”

Florida could get up to about $20 million to pay for added election expenses related to the pandemic under the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. It requires a $4 million state match.

Counties have listed a litany of items they could use the money for, including paying for return postage on mail ballots, deep cleaning of polling places before and after the election, added equipment to handle the increase in mail ballots and plastic glass barriers to protect workers.

Nearly every other state has submitted requests for all or part of their share of the $400 million in federal aid. Oklahoma is the only other state that has not, but it said it plans to do so.

On Wednesday — after the association’s letter was sent and following outcry from some Democrats — Ard said Florida intends to request the $20 million in funding from the federal government and is coordinating with the governor’s office and state legislature on the match requirement. He noted that the state has previously asked elections supervisors for their best estimates on their coronavirus-related expenses.

“It’s truly inexplicable that the state of Florida has not made this very important move to safeguard the election,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. She and others have called on the state in recent days to request the federal funds.

“We’re talking about our democracy. I’d say it’s worth it,” she said.

During Florida’s March 17 presidential preference primary — one of the first state elections held since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic — some elections officials struggled to find enough poll workers as people begged off for fear of getting sick.

In the days before the election, multiple counties had to move polling places at the last minute as long-term care facilities shut their doors and other locations refused to host voting. Election Day voter turnout plummeted. Some of the people who did show up toted their own pens and hand sanitizer.

Other states that have run elections during the pandemic have also run into problems. Wisconsin’s April 7 election was marked by confusion among voters amid shifting orders about both in-person and mail-in voting and long lines at some polling places. As poll workers refused to show, the number of polling places in Milwaukee dropped from 180 to just five for a city of about 592,000, according to the Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel.

“Elections are unforgiving. You can’t redo them,” said Mike Hogan, supervisor of elections for Duval County.

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