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2020

Coronavirus outbreak sparks more interest in voting by mail in 2020 elections

County election offices are expecting a lot more voters to want absentee ballots.

County supervisors of elections are seeing a lot more interest in vote-by-mail ballots because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The primary for state elections is August 18th and the general election is November 3rd. But what the situation will look like four months or seven months from now is anyone’s guess. And that makes voting-by-mail an attractive option to more voters this year.

Florida went ahead with in-person voting for presidential primary election earlier this month. Patricia Brigham, state president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, says they saw some hiccups. Several polling locations were moved because they were located in retirement communities or senior centers, where the population is more susceptible to the virus.

“Those were understandably moved, but that created some confusion,” she said. “We asked the secretary of state’s office to make it more visible on their website as to these relocations and that didn’t happen, people were just referred to their local (supervisors of elections).”

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, person-to-person voter registration has been suspended. The League of Women Voters would right now be at festivals, college campuses and homeless shelters registering people to vote. But large group gatherings are banned, college campuses are closed and social distancing is encouraged. So they’re asking Floridians to go online to register to vote. 

While Florida went ahead in March, other states have postponed theirs to a later date. And more of them are considering expanding voting by mail or conducting its election by mail-in ballot. Florida allows voters to request no-excuse absentee ballots.

How voting by mail looks differs in each state. While most states allow all voters to cast a mail-in ballot, 17 states restrict absentee voting to people who have disabilities, who are ill or who would be out of town on Election Day.

But several states have begun lifting restrictions on mail-in voting, opening the process to people who may have fears of exposure to the highly infectious virus.

Maryland’s Governor has proposed an all mail-in special election on April 28th to fill the open seat left by the death of Congressman Elijah Cummings. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has proposed sending all voters postage-paid absentee ballots to complete the state’s postponed March 17 primary

To some, moving to a vote-by-mail system for this year’s elections sounds like an ideal way to deal with the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic, provides stability among the uncertainty and helps increase turnout. But others argue it increases the risk of voter fraud and reduces voter turnout. What’s clear is states like Florida would face logistical hurdles. 

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Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley says moving an entire election to mail-in ballots would take more capacity and a lot of planning time. He says it would take action by lawmakers to create some exemptions in the law and some waiving of current requirements. 

“But there’s still a question of whether we have in the real world the bandwidth to mail that volume without a whole lot of prep time in between now and when the ballots would have to go out.”

Earley notes that just Broward County alone has 1.2 million voters. Then there’s 66 other counties that would need to pull off a similar feat if it was required.

“What we’re anticipating I think is a big push to have people request ballots,” he said.

Some Florida county supervisors of elections send voters prepaid absentee ballots, but others don’t have it in their budgets to do that. Windermere Democratic Rep. Geraldine Thompson has been pushing for the state to pay for the postage for absentee ballots.

“If it’s already postage paid, it just allows more people to participate in our Democracy,” she said. “And I think if you were to talk with supervisors of elections, they will confirm that they send out many more vote-by-mail ballots than are returned and a lot of it has to do with postage.”

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles says they’ve prepaid postage for absentee ballots since 2016. He says they do it so voters don’t have to worry about how much postage is needed to return the ballot.  But he says he doesn’t know if it improves the ballot return rate. He adds that a large number of voters don’t use the mail to return their ballots because they don’t want people to see their signatures. 

The League of Women Voters of Florida wants the state to send absentee ballots to every registered voter without needing a request. That’s what Iowa is planning to do. 

Cowles says to make that happen in Orange County, he would need 4 million envelopes.

It will be ultimately up to lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis to decide what the elections will look like later this year. Many lawmakers believe that there will be a special session to make adjustments to the state budget in light of the recent economic impact of the pandemic. They could also use that opportunity to address the upcoming elections.

Written By

Sarah Mueller has extensive experience covering public policy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010. She began her career covering local government in Texas, Georgia and Colorado. She returned to school in 2016 to earn a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting. Since then, she’s worked in public radio covering state politics in Illinois, Florida and Delaware. If you'd like to contact her, send an email to sarah@floridapolitics.com.

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