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Justice groups demand voting accommodations amid COVID-19 disruption

College students were sent home. Some precincts closed down. How will Tuesday go?

Racial justice organizations say Florida needs a plan so coronavirus fears do not deny anyone the right to vote.

A coalition of groups, including Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, Advancement Project National Office and Dēmos, sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee demanding action. Concerns were outlined for college students sent home because of the threat and those whose precincts will be closed amid exposure concerns.

A plan needs to be in place promptly, leaders said, because voters cast ballots Tuesday in Florida’s Presidential Preference Primary.

“Florida’s Presidential Primary Election is tomorrow and unless immediate action is taken by the state, millions of voters could be disenfranchised,” said Rachel Gilmer, co-director of Dream Defenders.

“Thousands of young people who anticipated voting on or near their college campuses were abruptly sent home last week and Florida’s leadership has disregarded them entirely. Other states with primaries on Tuesday have shown leadership we have yet to see from Florida. These students have now missed the deadline to request an absentee ballot and it is only fair that we provide them an opportunity to vote by mail. We must extend the vote by mail deadline until March 27 or we run the risk of massive voter suppression this primary.”

A letter from the groups makes a range of requests with various levels of accommodation.

Among those would be allowing vote-by-mail requests to be submitted to election supervisors from March 7 to Tuesday— or even to March 24. Ballots requested to certain addresses may never be seen by individuals sent home from college dorms.

The groups also want a receive-by deadline for ballots to be returned extended to 10 days after the election, the same deadline that already exists for military and overseas voters.

For voters concerned about exposure to the COVID-19 coronavirus, the groups also say elections supervisors should make curbside voting available for in-person voting.

Similarly, it asks that elections officials authorize third parties to drop off ballots at drop-off locations.

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The groups also ask voting by fax be authorized.

A variety of concerns prompted the letter, not least of which is the fact a number of polling locations in medically sensitive locations have been relocated at the last minute.

“Approximately 112 polling places have been moved or consolidated, including many at assisted living facilities,” said Andrea Mercado, Executive Director of New Florida Majority.

“We understand that these closures are to protect public health, but it will create confusion, make lines longer at existing locations and will force people to travel farther. Extending and expanding vote by mail is common sense.”

Lee this weekend encouraged voters to check with local elections officials about a possible change in voting locations.

She affirmed on Friday that the state will continue with Tuesday’s presidential preference primary as scheduled, joining in a letter with other states holding primaries Tuesday to address concerns about community exposure.

“Americans have participated in elections during challenging times in the past, and based on the best information we have from public health officials, we are confident that voters in our states can safely and securely cast their ballots in this election, and that otherwise healthy poll workers can and should carry out their patriotic duties on Tuesday,” an announcement from the secretaries of state read.

The social justice groups said while they respect the concerns state officials must contend with over COVID-19, there’s a responsibility to accommodate voters as well. And if actions aren’t taken by noon Monday, the groups may go to court to demand accommodations.

“We are in uncharted territory. With the declaration of a state of emergency and the serious risks posed by COVID-19, many Floridians who had planned to vote in person will be unable to vote unless the state takes immediate action,” said K. Sabeel Rahman, president of Dëmos. “Voters need accommodations for vote-by-mail and protective measures at the polls now.”

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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