Flagler County Elections Supervisor Kaiti Lenhart is among the Florida supervisors who have asked Gov. Ron DeSantis for emergency measures they say will help them cope with an anticipated “significant statewide shortage” of poll workers later this year because of the coronavirus.
Lenhart, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association, gathered and provided feedback from counties in her district to the governor ahead of the elections in August and November. She and other supervisors want the governor to issue an executive order allowing supervisors to designate additional or alternative early voting sites, give counties the option of adding an extra week to the two-week early voting period and allow people to cast ballots at early voting sites through Election Day.
“We anticipate a significant statewide shortage of poll workers volunteering for the 2020 elections and a shortage of polling places available for Election Day voting,” Lenhart said today. “We have made several recommendations to the Governor and have requested the issuance of an executive order modifying Florida’s statutory requirements as soon as possible, so that we may efficiently prepare for the Primary and General elections. These requests are aligned with a previous executive order issued by Governor DeSantis for Bay and Gulf Counties in response to Hurricane Michael in 2018, which is still in effect for those counties.”
Lenhart’s office mailed close to 15,000 ballots during the Presidential Preference Primary in March, but the office is planning for an unprecedented increase to 60,000 mail ballots for the Primary and General Elections. That’s more than half the current population of 115,000, and close to two-thirds the eligible voting-age population. “My office will be sending a Vote-By-Mail request postcard to every voter who does not currently have a request for a mail ballot” by the end of May Lenhart said. “This mailer will reach 76,000 voters in Flagler County.”
The request sent to Governor DeSantis, if granted, would allow county Supervisors to mail requested mail ballots between 45 and 22 days prior to Election Day, Lenhart said, and to fulfill subsequent requests within three business days of receiving the request. It would also allow counties more time to canvass (open and tabulate in a public meeting of the Canvassing Board) mail ballots by starting the canvass as soon as the public logic and accuracy test is completed.
Mail ballots include two envelopes (outer and return) and a secrecy sleeve, along with the printed paper ballot and an I Voted sticker. The cost of a ballot package including postage is $2.24 each, Lenhart said. She calculates that if 60,000 ballots are sent out, the cost would total $134,580 for the initial mailing. In comparison, the Primary Election, with 13 consecutive days of early voting at three sites and the staffing of 24 polling locations on Election Day, would cost $94,664. (It’s still the voter’s responsibility to affix appropriate postage on a ballot sent back to the supervisor, though there are also numerous drop-off boxes.)
As matters stand now, that cost would be in addition to the vote-by-mail costs unless the governor allows a change. “Until we have guidance from Governor DeSantis, we must prepare for our Election Day voting sites, early voting and an increase of mail ballots,”
There are no intentions or recommendations to suspend in-person voting. If anything, that would actually expand during the early voting period, depending on local supervisors’ preferences.
Much of that is to counter the sort of issues that arose during the presidential primary.
Supervisors “encountered significant challenges” during the presidential primary elections, such as polling places becoming unavailable, difficulty in acquiring hand sanitizer and other supplies and “substantial numbers of poll workers deciding not to work,” Levy County Supervisor of Elections Tammy Jones wrote to DeSantis on Tuesday.
“While we anticipate that some level of in-person voting will continue, we believe that based on our March 17, 2020 election, alternatives or additional voting methods must be made available to counties,” Jones, president of the organization Florida Supervisors of Elections, wrote.
When asked if the DeSantis administration intends to grant the elections officials’ requests, Department of State spokesman Mark Ard said the agency is “reviewing these concerns and will continue working with local supervisors of elections.” The supervisors also want DeSantis to suspend a state law requiring at least one polling place in each precinct. “This will allow the supervisor the option to relocate or consolidate polling places with early voting sites,” Jones wrote.
But Republican leaders nationally, including President Trump, are moving aggressively to prevent an expansion of mail-in ballots. “I will not stand for it,” Trump said at a news conference this week, making exceptions for older voters. He did not explain why the same right should not be extended younger voter, though he made unsupported claims about “fraud.” Studies have show that voting fraud is minimal. Trump’s own voting commission found no evidence of such fraud before he disbanded the commission in 2018.
In Wisconsin, the Democratic governor there signed an order delaying the primary to June and extending the deadline for mail-in ballots. But the state supreme court blocked the order, and the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower-court order extending by six days the deadline for mail-in ballots.
Republican officials across the country, including Trump, fear that a vast expansion of mail-in ballots would make it harder for Republicans to win or hold office. “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said in reference to efforts by Democrats to expand mail-in ballots, though (as is the case in Florida and in Flagler) the efforts are also led by Republicans.
“Democrats are clamoring for it,” the president wrote on Twitter. “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters backed up the president in a prepared statement. “It is still too early know exactly how COVID-19 will impact the August or November elections in Florida,” Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, said, referring to August statewide primary elections. Floridians are allowed “to vote by mail for any reason at all,” he added. “We agree with President Trump that an all vote by mail ballot election is not feasible in Florida,” Gruters said. “Florida would likely see massive delays in counting votes and reporting results for days if not weeks.”
The push for more mail-in and early voting options today is underscored by public health concerns, both for voters and for election workers.
In the days leading up to the March 17 elections in Florida, supervisors scrambled to find last-minute replacement sites for assisted-living facilities and other voting locations deemed risky because of the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
Jones’ letter came as the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida continues to climb. As of Wednesday evening, Florida had 15,698 confirmed cases, according to state health officials. The highly contagious virus had caused the deaths of 323 people. The rapid spread of the virus, for which there is no vaccine–and there isn’t expected to be one by August or November–has fueled an intense debate throughout the country about whether in-person elections should proceed in an era of “social distancing” and other precautions recommended by health officials and the governor’s orders.
While a number of states canceled recent primary elections, DeSantis insisted that Florida’s elections take place. “We’re definitely voting,” DeSantis told reporters days before the March 17 elections. “They voted during the Civil War. We are going to vote.”
Although some states now are considering a mandate that all voters cast ballots by mail, Florida is “not in a position, at this time, to conduct an all-mail ballot election this year,” Jones advised DeSantis in Tuesday’s letter.
Florida Democrats, who largely supported the supervisors’ proposal, said they “still believe that statewide vote-by-mail is achievable, and the best way to ensure the principles of our democracy are upheld.” But they raised issues with limiting the number of precincts.
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terry Rizzo warned that “limiting polling locations could disenfranchise voters in large cities.”
States such as Colorado and Oregon, which conduct all-mail ballot elections, still have in-person voting options, Lenhart noted, with early voting locations, where any registered voter may cast a ballot regardless of precinct, operating through election day itself. “Each county will make the determination of how many days to extend the early voting period,” Lenhart said. “With the potential shortage of workers and polling places, this option would allow voters to use those early voting sites on Election Day itself, instead of being required to vote in their assigned precinct location.”
Democrats hailed the effort to expand vote-by-mail and early voting but said it didn’t go far enough.
“It’s the right thing to do to protect lives, and it’s a good first step, but unprecedented times call for great measures to protect our democracy,” Rizzo said in a prepared statement.
If large voting centers are established by local supervisors, Democrats urged the state to “set standards for fair and equitable demographic, geographic and population distribution of the centers” to avoid long lines such as the lines recently encountered by voters in Wisconsin and Texas.
Jones’ letter to DeSantis said that supervisors “must be made a priority for acquisition of supplies,” such as hand sanitizer, to ensure that in-person voting is in accordance with guidelines issued by state and federal health authorities.
“While there may be additional changes necessary for the August and November elections, which will come to our attention and need your assistance, authorizing these provisions at this time will allow us to prepare for more efficient and safe elections,” Jones wrote.
–FlaglerLive and the News Service of Florida