Recently, we’ve been hearing from voters who are concerned about poll watchers and potential disruption at our voting locations. In Florida, voters have the right to vote free from coercion or intimidation — it’s written into our law and I stand ready to protect that very important right. So let’s step back a minute and consider what’s in place to provide for both order and transparency in the elections process, while protecting voters.
I’ll start outside the polling place.
Voters who arrive to vote in person may see campaign signs and people campaigning for various candidates outside the voting location — but they will be at a distance. Florida law requires a 150-foot “no solicitation zone” around each voting location, so all campaign materials and activities must be at least 150 feet away. We have a poll worker stationed at every site to monitor that area and ensure that the rules are being followed.
Now let’s go inside.
Members of the public are not allowed inside polling places unless they are voting, and this is where poll watchers come in. Florida allows political parties and candidates to designate poll watchers. This is not new, and it is regulated. Those poll watchers must be registered voters in our county, and they cannot be members of law enforcement agencies. We provide approved poll watchers with credentials and they follow specific rules, which include the fact that they are not allowed to talk to voters while in the polling place observing activities. The role of the poll watcher is simple — they watch what’s happening to ensure that our trained poll workers are following the proper procedures. We have strong lines of communication with our local political parties so that we can address any concerns immediately.
We also have strong partnerships with our law enforcement agencies. Every election, they know where the voting locations are, and we have officers on site at our Hillsborough County Elections Service Center who can facilitate a quick response to any problem. Our poll workers are trained to call law enforcement if they encounter illegal or dangerous activity occurring in or near any voting location.
Finally, while we have measures in place to maintain order at our sites, we encourage anyone who is at all concerned to vote by mail. We have expanded our drop-off options for Vote By Mail considerably this election. Voters can receive their ballot in the mail and then drive up to any of our four offices and drop their ballot off in person. We have drop-off tents out seven days a week, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., at those offices. During early voting (Oct. 19 through Nov. 1), the opportunities expand even more, with drive-up drop off at 26 locations, including Amalie Arena and Raymond James Stadium.
The most important thing is this: the power of suggestion can be a form of voter intimidation. Do not let anyone deter you from casting a ballot. Choose the method that you feel most comfortable with. You can vote by mail, you can vote at any of our 26 early voting sites in Hillsborough from Oct. 19 through Nov. 1, or you can vote at your neighborhood polling place on Nov. 3. This is our democracy and everyone’s voice matters.
Craig Latimer is the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.