Safer ways for Florida to get out the vote | Editorial
Governor, local elections supervisors need to account for the coronavirus
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

The coronavirus has changed life as we know it — and that means Florida should make significant accommodations for its upcoming elections. The state’s local elections supervisors have asked Gov. Ron DeSantis for some sensible leeway as they plan for what could be a record voter turnout this presidential election year. A greater use of mail ballots and minor administrative changes could better protect voters and poll workers and encourage more Floridians to participate in the democratic process.

The supervisors say they are acting in response to the “significant challenges” they faced in conducting the state’s presidential primary in March, when public fears over the coronavirus outbreak led to polling places becoming unavailable, poll workers deciding not to work and last-minute difficulties in finding enough hand sanitizer and other essential supplies. In a letter to the governor, the supervisors said they expected these same problems to impact the Aug. 18 primary election and the Nov. 3 general election, and they asked DeSantis to use his executive authority to grant local supervisors the flexibility to make staffing and logistical decisions “to best administer the election in their county, based on their specific needs.” This is a reasonable request, and by supporting it now, the governor can help the counties prepare for a difficult election season.

Mail a ballot to every voter. The supervisors didn’t ask that Florida hold its elections entirely by mail ballot, advising DeSantis that Florida “is not in a position, at this time, to conduct an all-mail ballot election this year.” But supervisors across the state have championed mail balloting in recent months, promoting it as a convenience to voters and a method for fostering safety by reducing the crowds at polling places. The Broward County supervisor of elections wants to send every county voter a form to request a mail ballot, but the most straight-forward approach would be to simply send mail ballots to every Florida voter, who could choose whether to return it or show up at their polling site on Election Day.

About one-third of Floridians vote by mail ballot; that figure reached 36 percent in the 2018 general election in Hillsborough and 55 percent in Pinellas, which is a leader in vote-by-mail. Floridians are familiar with mail ballots, and contrary to President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims, there is no evidence that mail balloting skews to the benefit of either major political party or enables widespread voter fraud. And Florida should go further, by prepaying postage on mail ballots. Hillsborough has done that for years, spending about $90,000 in the 2018 election. Prepaid postage will eliminate the confusion for voters who might not have stamps at the ready, ensuring that more mail ballots are eventually returned.

Extend the voting period. The supervisors want the option to extend early voting up to 22 days prior to the election, adding an additional week. Extending the timetable for early voting would help large, urban counties especially to reduce crowding at the polling places. And with everyday routines upended for most people, this change would help Floridians as their schedules continue to transition in the coming months. The supervisors also want additional time to send voters a vote-by-mail ballot, which makes sense if counties are promoting mail voting and processing a higher caseload.

Though the supervisors didn’t request it, the governor should also allow mail ballots that are received up to two days after Election Day to be counted. Current law already provides 10 days for an overseas ballot to be counted in a general election provided the ballot was postmarked by Election Day. Voters also have two days to cure a provisional ballot and a mail ballot flagged for a questionable signature, and counties have up to 12 days to file election returns to the Department of State. These allowances won’t create any administrative hardships and would only contribute to fuller voter participation.

More on-site voting options. The pandemic has changed the lives of Floridians, and social distancing and the fear of a second wave will have a chilling effect on group gatherings for the foreseeable future. That could seriously impact in-person voting, certainly in August and probably in November. Facilities that typically host voting precincts might be closed or unavailable, and the armies of poll workers needed to staff the precincts will likely be in short supply.

To cope, the supervisors have asked for more discretion to designate additional or alternate early voting site locations. They also want the option to relocate or consolidate polling places. The changes would make it easier to manage any logistical hurdles as they arise. But supervisors need to be especially sensitive to eliminating polling places in poorer neighborhoods, where residents may lack a car or the means to travel far beyond their traditional polling place to vote. In Hillsborough, for example, the return rate for mail ballots is lower in minority neighborhoods than it is in white communities. For many, mail ballots don’t take the place of in-person voting. Supervisors need to ensure that voters have a range of practical options for casting their ballot.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news