Florida’s military mail-in vote may play critical role in 2020 election

More than 50,000 military vote-by-mail ballots were counted in Florida for the 2016 presidential election.
Nate Dodd, left, and Sean Cousins, right, pause while loading pallets of voting ballots onto a truck at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office in Tampa on July 9.
Nate Dodd, left, and Sean Cousins, right, pause while loading pallets of voting ballots onto a truck at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office in Tampa on July 9. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 1, 2020

Amy Noel and her husband, who serves in the U.S. Air Force, are among the thousands of registered Florida voters casting vote-by-mail ballots because they are stationed in another state or overseas.

They’ve done it for years, they say, but they’re more concerned this year than ever, because of U.S. Postal Service slowdowns.

Military voters have played a critical role in determining close races, including the 2000 presidential election, according to military voting advocacy groups, and they are a sizable constituency in Florida. In the 2016 presidential election, Florida had the highest number of military mail ballots counted, with more than 50,000, according to a report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

“I think that Florida is really a bellwether in (military mail voting),” said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and chief executive of the nonprofit U.S. Vote Foundation and Overseas Vote.

Florida mailed 103,818 ballots for the 2020 general election to servicemembers, their eligible family members and U.S. citizens overseas, according to Mark Ard, spokesman for the Florida Department of State. Federal law required those ballots to be sent by Sept. 19, or 45 days before Election Day.

In Hillsborough County, officials track vote-by-mail military ballots coming both from other states and from overseas. The county mailed 5,383 ballots for this election to those across the U.S. and 958 to those overseas. As of Oct. 29, Hillsborough reported 3,513 ballots returned from across the U.S. and 657 from overseas, according to Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the county’s Supervisor of Elections Office.

In Pinellas County, 3,225 vote-by-mail military ballots were requested, with 2,296 returned by Oct. 30, said Dustin Chase, deputy supervisor of elections for the county.

The Pasco County elections office was unable to provide figures by the time of publication.

Nationwide, the U.S. Postal Service reported that 55,683 overseas military ballots were returned from Sept. 1 to Oct. 29. In 2016, the Postal Service recorded 46,216 such ballots returned over the same span.

Concerns about the 2020 election have prompted advocacy groups to help military voters ensure that their votes count.

Noel, 36, who with her husband is stationed in Washington, D.C., called a registrar twice this year to confirm that their ballots were counted in Florida’s Okaloosa County.

“We were absolutely worried about the post office issue, you know defunding the post office, and what that was going mean for our ballots,” she said.

In Florida, as long as military mail ballots are postmarked by Nov. 3, and arrive by Nov. 13, the ballots will be counted, said Jack Noland, a researcher with the nonprofit Count Every Hero. Yet there’s misinformation circulating that if they arrive after Election Day, these ballots are somehow invalid or even fraudulent.

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Sarah Streyder, a military spouse and director of the nonprofit Secure Families Initiative, is asking officials, the media and the public to be careful.

“I think it’s important for us to all adjust our expectations for when we will have election results,” Streyder said. “Any sort of hasty rush to judgment or rush to declare winners before every ballot has been incorporated, that disproportionately affects us in our community.”

Florida has one of the highest numbers of vote-by-mail military voters, in part because many service members keep their residency here after serving at one of several military bases in the state, Steyder said.

Noel’s family switched from being Louisiana voters to Florida voters when they moved to Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in 2011. They have remained Florida voters ever since.

Dzieduszycka-Suinat, with U.S. Vote Foundation and Overseas Vote, projects a surge in military mail ballots this year as compared to 2016′s presidential election, thanks to a strong motivation to vote and improved voting systems.

For Noel, the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on daily life have offered yet another motivator for military voters.

“This year, everybody has more time and more energy to put into it, because all of our normal routines are kind of up in the air," she said.