Elections supervisors prepare for primary

People exit Rohan Recreation Center after casting votes in the March presidential preference primary. Early voting for the upcoming primary starts this week in the tri-county area.

It’s time for round two. The August primary is right around the corner, the first time Floridians will head to the ballot box since the pandemic became part of daily life. Early voting in the tri-county area begins Thursday in Lake County, and Saturday in Sumter and Marion counties. Elections supervisors have spent months preparing, and now Florida is about to have another election amid the coronavirus pandemic. During the last statewide election, the March 17 presidential preference primary, Floridians were just starting to feel the pandemic’s effects. Marion County had to find temporary locations after six polling sites closed. Lake saw one location draw back, and all three tri-county elections offices saw some poll workers cancel.

Statewide, though, hundreds of poll workers stayed home and, in Broward County, two poll workers later tested positive for COVID-19.

As the pandemic ramped up, many states pushed back primary elections or hastily turned to vote-by-mail.

For some, it wasn’t enough. For example, Wisconsin’s April and Georgia’s June primaries saw long lines, fewer places to vote and fewer poll workers.

In Wisconsin, 71 people who tested positive for COVID-19 said they were at the polls, but many had other exposures. In Georgia, the primary was marred by claims that mail-in ballots were never sent and issues appeared to disproportionately affect minority voters.

And on Aug. 18, the spotlight will return to Florida.

In April, the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, which represents all local elections offices, sent Gov. Ron DeSantis a letter requesting more local power to expand early voting amid COVID-19 concerns, and to express concern that counties are not in a position to hold the entire election by mail. A second letter was later sent as a reminder.

The overarching purpose of the letter was to allow supervisors some flexibility, said Wesley Wilcox, Marion County supervisor of elections.

In June, DeSantis issued an executive order that included granting supervisors the ability to begin processing vote-by-mail ballots earlier than the usual 22 days before the election and giving state employees of the State Personnel System administrative leave if they serve as poll workers on election days, as well as encouraging county, municipal and other public entities to follow suit.

The order said supervisors should ensure proper social distancing and cleaning procedures for early voting and Election Day “insofar as is practicable.”

“Did we get everything we wanted? No. But that was to be expected,” Wilcox said. “Any time you go and you ask for something, you try to ask for as much flexibility or as many things as possible.”

The governor did address the underlying issues supervisors were worried about, said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

“Having said that, he didn’t do exactly what the supervisors were asking for,” he said. “I guess it remains to be seen whether this allows supervisors the flexibility and support they need to hold the elections without any major problems we’ve seen in other states.”

Preparing for an unusual election

In the tri-county area, supervisors were preparing before the executive order. Lake County Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays said they went ahead and planned as though the governor was not going to give recommendations, and they knew whatever he did give they would be able to work with.

“One of the worst things you can do is sit still,” he said.

Hays, and the other tri-county supervisors, are taking precautions such as enforcing hygienic behaviors, distancing voting booths and giving poll workers personal protective equipment.

Poll workers are supplied with masks and encouraged to wear them, said Bill Keen, Sumter County supervisor of elections, and voters are encouraged as well. Poll workers are not required to wear masks in Lake and Marion counties, nor are voters.

Keen said poll workers at his precincts will continue using the safety precautions from the March primary, including providing plenty of hand sanitizer for themselves and voters.

“We’ll spread the booths out even farther than they were before,” Keen said. “The operators wipe down the booths and anything else people touch, (and) periodically clean during the day.”

In the past, Wilcox said there hasn’t been a “heavy focus on sanitation,” but now he believes supervisors across the state and country will make it a much higher priority.

“We’re going to have to start supplying more sanitary products,” he said. “It’s kind of the cost of doing business.”

Marion has made four COVID-related location changes outside of The Villages area. Lake will use the same locations it did for the presidential preference primary and Sumter has no changes to its polling locations.

To help fill poll worker openings, all three supervisors found support from local governmental offices, such as the county commissioners and school boards, although Keen said that Sumter is good on poll workers.

In Marion County, about 70 school board and county government employees recently went through training sessions so they can lend a hand. The Lake elections office set up extra training sessions for employees of the county’s constitutional offices, such as the sheriff’s office, who are assisting.

Vote-by-Mail

All three elections offices have sent out mailers encouraging vote-by-mail. Keen had planned to do so pre-pandemic, and Wilcox was considering it.

Vote-by-mail, seen by some as the answer to voting during the pandemic, has become a political bone of contention. President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked vote-by-mail, linking it with fraud, although here there hasn’t been any evidence of widespread vote-by-mail fraud in the past.

But it’s a popular method of voting in the Sunshine State that pre-dates the pandemic.

“Regardless of the fact that Florida’s not mandating vote-by-mail, we’ve traditionally had a huge number of people doing that, and I expect to see that this year,” Jewett said.

In Florida’s 2018 general election, Republicans returned about 54,000 more ballots by mail than Democrats. In the March primary, vote-by-mail made up about 46% of ballots.

In the tri-county area, 56,505 of 147,228 votes were registered through the mail, or about 38%.

It’s “way up from 2016,” said Keen, whose county had about 17,000 returned ballots in the March primary.

With 44% voter turnout, Sumter was No. 1 in the state again for the presidential preference primary — in large part due to a boost received in early voting and vote-by-mail turnout, Keen said.

Keen already has received about 37,400 requests for vote-by-mail ballots. Wilcox’s office received more than 65,000 and Hays received about 53,000.

Hays also has expanded the footprint of his office’s vote-by-mail department, adding 150 square feet, as well as buying more equipment and hiring additional temporary staff to prepare.

Under Florida law, voters don’t need to provide a reason for a mail-in ballot. The ballot must be in the county elections supervisor’s office by 7 p.m. on Election Day and be returned in the correct signed return envelope, which will be compared with a signature on file.

Recently, a trial, which was a consolidation of lawsuits concerning Florida’s vote-by-mail processes, was scheduled to start asking for things including an extension of the vote-by-mail ballot submission deadline.

But plaintiffs and DeSantis’ office reached a settlement, one which required the secretary of state to educate and encourage elections supervisors about a range of vote-by-mail procedures, such as pre-paid postage for mail-in ballots.

Another deal requires Miami-Dade, Nassau, Orange, Pinellas and Volusia counties to put a program into practice that will allow blind and print-impaired voters to fill ballots online in time for November. Statewide implementation is required by March 2022.

The last day to request a mail-in ballot is Saturday.

Staff writer Alexandria Mansfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or alexandria.mansfield@thevillagesmedia.com. Senior staff writer Jeff Shain, The News Service of Florida and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.