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All counties should offer secure, 24/7 drop boxes for mail ballots | Column

With record numbers of voters casting ballots by mail, easier access to drop boxes only makes sense.

“Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting,” President Donald J. Trump tweeted on Aug. 4, “in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True.”

Yet, given widespread concerns about the postal service, many voters — including the president and first lady — are planning to drop off their mail-in ballots in person (or, in their case, have an aide carry their ballots to the Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections).

Jose Vazquez [ Provided ]

But for those of us who don’t have a personal courier to hand-deliver our vote-by-mail ballot, are the opportunities for voters to drop off their mail ballots different across the Sunshine State’s 67 counties?

We surveyed the state’s Supervisors of Elections to find out.

First, some context. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began to rise back in March, Florida voters have requested and cast mail ballots in record numbers. In both the March 17 presidential preference primary and Aug. 18 general primary, the share of total ballots cast by mail increased by more than 50 percent compared to the parallel election four years earlier.

Although the explosion of voting by mail has skyrocketed across the state, when it comes to dropping off one’s mail ballot in person at a secure drop-box — especially a drop-box that’s available 24/7, not all counties are equal.

Per Florida Statute 101.69 Sec. 2, at a minimum, county supervisors must have a secure drop-box placed at the main office, any branch office and every early voting site. However, they are under no obligation to allow secure drop-boxes to be made available for after hours for 24/7 use. Supervisors may, at their discretion, also place a secure drop-box at a location that qualifies as an early voting site, but it must be supervised by either an employee or sworn law enforcement officer during operating hours.

Daniel A. Smith is professor and chair of Political Science at the University of Florida. [ Provided ]

Some supervisors have gone further than others, providing 24/7 secure mail ballot drop-boxes around their jurisdictions, out of health and safety concerns for voters who might be forced to wait in line to drop off mail-in ballots at an early voting location.

By our count, during the March presidential primary, about 20 of the 67 Florida Supervisors of Elections implemented at least one 24/7 secure mail ballot drop-box.

Now, with exactly three weeks before the Nov. 3 election, 51 out of the 67 counties have followed suit, offering voters a secure drop-box system to deposit their mail-in ballots.

According to our data, there is a broad heterogeneity across the majority of the 67 counties in Florida when it comes to the inclusion of a 24/7 secure drop-box in the general election.

But 16 counties — including Pinellas, Leon, Miami-Dade and Monroe — are not offering voters 24/7 drop boxes, what we think is a low-cost, high-yield strategy.

The decision by some of these larger counties to not offer secure 24/7 drop-boxes, or even after-hours drop-boxes, for the November election, seems short-sighted, particularly as the demand for mail-in ballots continues to surge and concerns over the Postal Service’s delivery woes remain.

There is every indication that record numbers of voters in the two counties plan to vote by mail. As of Oct. 1, more than one-third of Miami-Dade’s 1.5 million active registered voters requested a mail ballot be sent to them, up from just 284,000 who requested a mail ballot in the August primary. And Pinellas, which led the state’s expansion of mail-in voting when erstwhile Republican Deborah Clark was Supervisor of Elections, mailed out a record number — more than 363,000 mail ballots — last week.

The issue certainly can’t be one of security or partisan politics, as other sizeable counties —including Broward and Palm Beach, whose Supervisors of Elections were both appointed by Republican governors — have adopted 24 /7 drop-box locations to ease not only congestion, but also allow greater access for those voters who which to avoid the postal service and drop their ballots off in person. Miami-Dade County appears to be an outlier not only in South Florida, but in the entire state.

The lack of secure drop-off locations in metropolitan counties is a grave concern. Over 5 million vote-by-mail ballot requests have been made by Florida voters in the current election. Over 1 million mail ballots have already been cast ahead of Nov. 3. Across Florida, registered voters are breaking vote by mail ballot request records, which is no surprise with the threat of COVID-19.

All Florida voters deserve safe and convenient opportunities to drop-off their mail ballots in person.

As witnessed in Ohio and Texas, limits placed on drop-off locations can limit the ability of voters casting mail ballots. In both Texas and Ohio, orders from executives in each state have limited drop-boxes to only one per county. Recently in Ohio, executives have “addressed” the problem by allowing the 88 counties to add more drop-boxes, but only at locations there was one previously.

In an election where there are concerns over the delivery of mail ballots by the Postal Service and legitimate health concerns due to COVID-19 for in-person voting, it seems to make bipartisan sense for all counties to make 24/7 secure drop-boxes available to their voters.

Jose Vazquez earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Florida this year. Daniel A. Smith is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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