Preparation, people, luck – plus determination in the face of disaster: What it takes to pull off an election in Florida.

Voting booths in Leon County
Voting booths in Leon County, in Florida's state capital. Credit: Mitch Perry.

It’s no small task to run an election in the nation’s third-largest state. It takes tens of thousands of workers and a massive amount of coordination.

And to top it off, Hurricane Michael raged through North Florida and knocked out communications for a wide swath of the Panhandle. In some counties, there aren’t homes left at the addresses where vote-by-mail ballots are supposed to be sent. In other cases, polling places may be gone.

Still, the counties that took the brunt of the storm’s fury – where Internet, electricity and cell service are in short supply – are cobbling together plans to carry out democracy.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner said in a statement Thursday that there has been no reported damage to elections equipment or to any mail-in ballots already collected in the hurricane-hit counties.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order Thursday that allows county Supervisors of Elections in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties to add new early voting locations and extend early voting days, which can now begin Oct. 22 and run through Election Day, Nov. 6. Scott’s order also waives a restriction so that vote-by-mail ballots can be forwarded to a new address – a move designed to help evacuees who are now living elsewhere.  Scott directed state elections officials to be sure that ballots are provided to emergency and hurricane cleanup workers.

The adjustments for this year’s hurricane-hit areas are part of how Florida, with 67 counties and at least 13 million registered voters, has to maneuver through the intricacies of the voting process every two years.

Each county is responsible for funding and putting together its own election process. Together, these counties employ tens of thousands of people for the November election.

“It’s a very complicated, intricate web,” former Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said.

Elections officials start getting things ready about a year and a half before Election Day, Sancho said. Sancho is 67 and worked as an elected Supervisor of Election for 28 years.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, 48, likens an election to a band concert – voters show up to see the concert and leave. But before the show date is even set, the band must come together, practice, put together a set, schedule the venue, set up the stage, then break it all down afterward.

Preparations for a presidential year election are different than for an “off-year” gubernatorial election, Sancho said. Elections offices collect data over the years so officials can make close predictions for what kind of resources they have to pull together, like the number of mail-in ballots needed. Counties keep booklets with detailed calendars of what needs to happen and when. As Election Day grows closer, they have to closely coordinate the newly-gathered team of workers and volunteers.

During an election, the Pasco County elections office becomes the county’s third-largest employer, elections supervisor Corley said.

“That always amazes me – the caliber of people who step up to help run these elections,” Corley said.  “We have such a wide variety of poll workers – genders, races, political affiliations. They step up to serve. They do it for love of country, democracy and county.”

On Election Day, some 1,200 employees will show up to work in Pasco County, plus volunteers.

“Most voters are unaware what goes on behind the scenes,” Corley said, adding that in these final weeks before Nov. 6, “We’re hitting a crescendo, a flurry of activity.”

Right now, Corley’s office is finalizing the last stages of early voting. They’re preparing to process tens of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots.

Pasco County has 110 polling locations and each location was chosen because of how many people it can accommodate, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and how convenient it is to get to, Corley said. Every county has to make those complex decisions.

Working the polls

Michele Levy has been a poll worker in Orange County since 2008. The 75-year-old retiree is responsible for fixing problems – “troubleshooting,” she calls it – at her community center on Election Day. She’s also a member of the League of Women Voters of Florida and, each year, she donates the money she makes as a poll worker to the League as part of the organization’s “adopt a precinct” initiative.

“I came from the generation that always voted,” Levy said. “It’s a good feeling when you work the polls.”

For the most part, Levy works with the same eight people each year who are dedicated to making sure Floridians have access to voting.

An important part of working on Election Day is that the entire team of poll workers sticks together, Sancho says. A polling place becomes a “semi-secure facility” so it’s important for poll workers not to leave except in emergencies.

“You are no better than your most important resources,” Sancho says, “and the most important resources in an election office are the people.”

Levy would probably agree. (“We get pizza, too!” she says.)

Levy works the polls in her precinct’s community center. From year to year, counties will try to use the same locations, though they must be re-evaluated. Polling locations can be city halls, libraries, elections offices, community centers, stadiums and now, educational institutions.

A Tallahassee judge ruled earlier this year to allow voting sites on college campuses. Churches can’t be used as early voting sites since the locations have to be open for 14 consecutive days, including Sundays. They can be used on an Election Day, though.

Elections officials say it’s hard to fathom the amount of energy that goes into facilitating this most precious of democratic gifts. Pasco County official Corley says he likes elections because, no matter how divisive the political season becomes, everyone comes together in the end with the same goal – to cast a vote.

“We need to make sure we’re talking with each other, not at each other,” Corley said. “Civility is not a dirty word.”


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