DeSantis should stop stalling and approve plans for safe voting | Editorial
Give local elections supervisors the flexibility they need
An unidentified voter makes her way into a polling place located at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center to vote in the Presidential Preference Primary in 2016 in Tampa. CHRIS URSO/STAFF
An unidentified voter makes her way into a polling place located at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center to vote in the Presidential Preference Primary in 2016 in Tampa. CHRIS URSO/STAFF [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published May 21, 2020

Every aspect of American society - schools, shops, offices - has changed its operation to cope with the coronavirus, and elections are no different. Gov. Ron DeSantis should approve the request by Florida’s local elections supervisors to make this year’s election season safer and more manageable. The changes would protect voters and poll workers alike, and they would help keep the pandemic from suppressing voter turnout in a hotly contested presidential election year.

In a letter to DeSantis last month, the county elections supervisors noted the “significant challenges” they faced in holding the state’s presidential primary in March. Public fears over the coronavirus outbreak were still taking shape, and even then elections officials were confronting a range of last-minute problems, from a lack of hand sanitizer and other protection equipment to cancellations by poll workers and polling locations as fears of the highly contagious virus began to build.

The supervisors want a limited amount of additional authority from DeSantis “to best administer the election in their county, based on their specific needs.” This involves mostly logistical and operational headaches that the ongoing epidemic may pose as elections offices gear up for the Aug. 18 primary and the Nov. 3 general election. The supervisors want the option to extend early voting up to 22 days prior to the election, adding an additional week. They want additional time to send voters a vote-by-mail ballot, which makes sense now that counties are heavily promoting mail balloting. The supervisors also want more discretion to designate additional or alternate early voting sites and to relocate polling places to manage the anticipated shift in when and where voters cast a ballot.

The changes would give the supervisors their best chance to fully staff the precincts, and to better protect voters and poll workers by managing the case load through Election Day. With every-day routines already upended for most, and with the uncertainty surely to carry into the fall, these changes would offer voters more convenience, reduce crowding at the polling places and limit the health risks of running an election.

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, provided the ballot was postmarked by Election Day. And counties have up to 12 days to file election returns to the Department of State. The change wouldn’t create any hardships or delay, and would lead to a more accurate vote.

DeSantis completed two pieces of unfinished business on the elections front this past week, requesting $20 million in federal aid for the 2020 elections and appointing Julie Marcus to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Deborah Clark as Pinellas County’s elections supervisor. He should now acknowledge that supervisors across the state are facing practical difficulties as they seek to administer an election in these uncharted times. They need the governor’s support now to plan and effect a smooth election that produces full public confidence in the results.

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