The pandemic revealed Florida’s voting inequities; here’s how we can fix them | Column
More drop boxes, multilingual ballots and easier on-line registration all would help, writes a voting rights advocate.
An envelope with a vote-by-mail ballot inside is shown to the media at the Miami-Dade County Election Department on October 1, 2020 in Doral, Florida.
An envelope with a vote-by-mail ballot inside is shown to the media at the Miami-Dade County Election Department on October 1, 2020 in Doral, Florida. [ JOE RAEDLE | Getty Images North America ]
Published Dec. 13, 2020

COVID-19 exposed deficiencies in Florida’s election system that hamper voter participation. Laid bare were systemic issues with online registration, language barriers and indifferent state officials who refuse to put voters’ best interests ahead of their own.

Brad Ashwell
Brad Ashwell [ Provided ]

Since the 2000 election, Florida tried to overcome its embarrassing performance through legislative action, but the results have been insufficient and sometimes punitive. As we move into 2021, decision-makers and election officials must put their fellow citizens’ interests and safety first by addressing failures while building on what’s working.

Introduced in 2017 as a way to expedite participation in our democracy, Florida’s online voter registration system has crashed three separate times in as many years — often on registration deadlines. Notoriously, it failed on the deadline for this year’s general election, despite repeated warnings from voting rights groups, and offers of technical assistance. Officials must fix on-line registration and ensure it sheds its reputation for being reliably unreliable. Lawmakers should require the secretary of state to perform stress tests by an independent third-party and publish the results to give voters confidence.

For many Floridians, registering is the first hurdle to participate in our democracy. But their battles don’t end there. Next, they must contend with scant voting resources in the language of their choice. Florida is home to 2.5 million Latino voters as well as roughly 106,000 Haitian-born citizens who are registered to vote. We also have approximately 400,000 Asian and Pacific Islander voters, 63 percent of whom said in one survey that Asian language support at polling places would be helpful.

State officials already have a blueprint: Section 203 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act currently requires for Spanish materials produced by the state and certain counties. County officials should also ensure consistent formatting, so the foreign language matches its English counterpart, and increase the number of poll workers who can communicate in languages other than English.

Finally, let’s expand on what worked this election cycle with respect to voting by mail and tabulating ballots.

The state Legislature should permanently extend the period to process mail ballots, which was allowed this cycle due to an executive order. The change helped the state deliver quick election results and avoided the delays other states experienced.

Although we value expediency, we must also give voters more than 48 hours after Election Day to “cure” issues with their mailed ballots. Neighboring Georgia allows three days, while fellow presidential battleground Ohio allows seven. Extending the cure deadline to ensure all fixable ballots are included in the final count is a simple improvement. Additionally, like in many other states, vote-by-mail ballots should be counted if postmarked by Election Day. This would help avoid confusion and eliminate worry about mail delivery times, which is out of the voter’s control.

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Last of all, Florida needs to increase the number of ballot drop boxes per county. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission recommends one drop box per 15,000 voters. Lawmakers should also require officials to establish and digitally promote ballot drop box locations at least a month before early voting begins, similar to how Florida runs early-voting sites.

By building on what worked and fixing what hasn’t in these three areas, the Florida Legislature can take a great first step toward making our voting process straightforward and accessible to all. Although the public spotlight is on other states right now, we still have work to do before we can confidently say that it won’t return to Florida.

Brad Ashwell is Florida state director for All Voting is Local.