Gov. Ron DeSantis has rejected calls by Florida’s supervisors of elections to extend early voting to avoid meltdowns at the polls this summer and fall, but will allow them to get a head start on counting what promises to be a mountain of vote-by-mail ballots.
Meanwhile, the governor essentially is encouraging voters to go to the polls on election day, despite fears of COVID-19 continuing through the summer and fall.
The governor’s plans include giving paid time off to state employees to serve as poll workers and setting up polling places in public schools, among other measures.
In an executive order signed at 4:36 p.m. on Wednesday, DeSantis said elections supervisors could begin processing vote-by-mail ballots earlier than 22 days before the election, the starting point under existing law.
The order came more than 11 weeks after the Florida Supervisors of Elections first wrote to DeSantis, on April 7, urging him to “immediately act” on their requests for more leeway in running the Aug. 18 primary and Nov. 3 general elections.
That letter, and a follow-up sent on May 13, asked for expanded opportunities to vote by mail, to vote early, and and safely go to the polls on election day without without unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. They also asked for permission to establish regional early voting centers to counteract concerns that poll workers might not show up for fear of the virus.
Following the governor’s move, Craig Latimer, supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County and head of the supervisors’ association, said the governor delivered too little too late.
“It comes at a point when many of the state’s supervisors of elections have already solidified their plans for the August primary election,” Latimer said in a press release Wednesday evening.
As of Thursday, COVID had infected 85,926 people in Florida and killed 3,061.
What the supervisors got was permission to begin processing vote-by-mail ballots earlier than 22 days before the election, the deadline under existing law. The Phoenix reported earlier that the supervisors have been encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots, and expect twice as many of them compared to normal.
But DeSantis did nothing to expand early voting, essentially encouraging people to vote in person on election day.
That would be in line with the message from the White House, where President Trump, DeSantis’ political patron, has attacked voting by mail on the dubious claim that the practice encourages voter fraud.
Conservatives nationally have begun agitating against voting by mail, as The Washington Post has reported. Ironically, the Florida GOP has long promoted the practice in its get-out-the-vote efforts, as evidenced by this Politico Florida report.
Latimer noted that what the governor gave was “substantially different” from what the supervisors asked for.
“The supervisors of elections are currently reviewing the order to determine how it may affect their plans for the primary and general elections,” Latimer wrote.
DeSantis also authorized release of more than $20 million in CARES Act money for elections, awarded by Congress in response to the COVID pandemic. The supervisors had expressed alarm that the DeSantis administration had held up those funds.
“I also want to express my concern that Florida is lagging behind nearly every other state in securing CARES Act funding for elections. While we wait, the goods and services we need are becoming scarce,” Latimer had written to the governor in May.
The governor’s plan allows two days of paid time off for state employees who serve as poll workers during both the primary and general elections.
“I encourage all county, municipal, and other public entities to provide the same or similar incentives for their employees to serve as poll workers and encourage cooperation and coordination with the supervisors of elections to fulfill any election day poll worker needs,” the order reads.
The document encourages social distancing at the polls “insofar as is practicable. This may include, but is not limited to, spacing out voting stations, the use of physical barriers for poll workers interacting with voters, providing personal protective equipment to poll workers and making hand sanitizer and other cleaning products readily available.”
Additionally, the state will supply hand sanitizer, personal protective gear, and cleaning products.
The order encourages local school officials to suspend classes on primary and election days to facilitate voting on campus. As it stands now, school districts have been trying to get students safely back into brick-and-mortar classrooms, and the challenges are many.
“I encourage all school district faculty, staff, and instructors to serve as poll workers on Election Day,” the order says.
The document cites the importance of “ensuring public health and safety, while simultaneously ensuring that eligible voters have ample opportunities to vote.”
Floridians may register to vote by July 20 for the Aug. 18 primary and by Oct. 5 for the Nov. 3 general election. They may request vote-by-mail ballots now from local elections supervisors even if they decide later to vote in person instead.