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Clockwise from top left, Bill Cowles, Mary Jane Arrington, Chris Anderson and moderator Nick Shannin discuss elections safety in a Tiger Bay of Central Florida forum.

APolitical

Elections supervisors urge vote-by-mail, get creative for COVID-19 safety

Q-tips for stylus?

A Q-tip swab, wrapped in aluminum foil and dampened on a wet sponge?

Voters might be asked to sign in at polling places to vote in the August 18 election and perhaps November 3 election by using such Q-tips to trace their signatures onto digital tablets in Seminole County and perhaps throughout the state.

“Now it’s labor intensive [to wrap thousands of Q-tips with foil] but this is a disposable stylus,” Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Chris Anderson said Thursday, while demonstrating one during a Tiger Bay of Central Florida forum on elections safety. “This is how creative we have to be. … And this is disposable, so once the voter is done with it no other voter will touch that stylus.”

Better idea, Anderson, Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, and Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Mary Jane Arrington agreed during the forum: Vote by mail.

August’s statewide primary election will be a small-scale warmup for elections in the era of coronavirus social distancing. The general election in November could be one of the biggest elections ever. Supervisors statewide like Anderson, Cowles, and Arrington are pursuing ideas from the creative to the urgent to prepare for large scale changes, and worrying about time and money running out soon for major changes.

Anderson is a Republican in a red county, and Cowles and Arrington Democrats in blue counties. But in terms of how counties expect to run elections and what the supervisors’ offices will need, they expressed little difference of opinion Thursday.

In recent months there have been strong national concerns raised about voting by mail, concerns mostly raised by Republicans, starting with President Donald Trump, and mostly outside of Florida, a state where Republicans have been experts at running vote-by-mail campaigns for decades.

Arrington said Florida’s March 17 presidential primary saw half the votes cast in her county coming by mail, a number that reflects both the already-rising coronavirus concerns at that time and a steady upward trend in popularity for many years.

“We think it is definitely the safest way for people to vote,” Arrington said.

Anderson sent out vote-by-mail request forms to all 320,000 voters. The response was overwhelming, he said, though it included a few voters who called to say they do not like the idea of voting by mail. That’s OK, he said.

“In Seminole County we came up with something called, ‘The Choice is Yours.,'” Anderson said. “No matter what method of voting someone choses, we’re going to make sure it’s safe.”

Yet, whether there is a dramatic increase in vote-by-mail requests, leading to dramatic increased county costs for ballot mailers and postage, the supervisors see many significant new costs on the horizon, thanks to coronavirus. Masks, gloves, constant disinfection, sanitizer gels, new poll workers whose jobs will be to enforce social distancing in voter lines, new sleeves for ballots, training in groups of 10 or fewer for thousands of poll workers. None of the costs were anticipated when counties approved elections budgets last year for the August 18 election.

The supervisors expect Florida to cash in on $20 million in available money through the federal CARES Act to help allay such costs, but no one’s quite certain yet what the costs will be or how far that money might go to cover them, in a state with more than 11 million registered voters.

The supervisors, all 67 of them, also asked DeSantis to provide more flexibility in other areas of running elations, including county-by-county flexibility to expand the number of early-voting days. They have not received a reply, Cowles said.

“Time is getting close to the next election,” Cowles warned.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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