Florida election supervisors have asked Gov. Ron DeSantis for emergency measures they say will help them cope with an anticipated “significant statewide shortage” of poll workers later this year because of the novel coronavirus.
The local officials want the governor to issue an executive order allowing supervisors to designate additional or alternative early voting sites, give counties the option of adding an extra week to the two-week early voting period and allow people to cast ballots at early voting sites through Election Day.
Supervisors “encountered significant challenges” during the March presidential primary elections, such as polling places becoming unavailable, difficulty in acquiring hand sanitizer and other supplies and “substantial numbers of poll workers deciding not to work,” Levy County Supervisor of Elections Tammy Jones wrote to DeSantis on Tuesday.
“While we anticipate that some level of in-person voting will continue, we believe that based on our March 17, 2020 election, alternatives or additional voting methods must be made available to counties,” Jones, president of the organization Florida Supervisors of Elections, wrote.
When asked if the DeSantis administration intends to grant the elections officials' requests, Department of State spokesman Mark Ard said the agency is "reviewing these concerns and will continue working with local supervisors of elections."
The supervisors also want DeSantis to suspend a state law requiring at least one polling place in each precinct.
“This will allow the supervisor the option to relocate or consolidate polling places with early voting sites,” Jones wrote.
In the days leading up to the March 17 elections, supervisors scrambled to find last-minute replacement sites for assisted-living facilities and other voting locations deemed risky because of the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
Jones’ letter came as the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida continues to climb. As of Wednesday evening, Florida had 15,698 confirmed cases, according to state health officials. The highly contagious virus had caused the deaths of 323 people.
The rapid spread of the virus, for which there is no vaccine, has fueled an intense debate throughout the country about whether in-person elections should proceed in an era of “social distancing” and other precautions recommended by health officials.
While a number of states canceled recent primary elections, DeSantis insisted that Florida’s elections take place.
“We’re definitely voting,” DeSantis told reporters days before the March 17 elections. “They voted during the Civil War. We are going to vote.”
Although some states now are considering a mandate that all voters cast ballots by mail, Florida is “not in a position, at this time, to conduct an all-mail ballot election this year,” Jones advised DeSantis in Tuesday’s letter.
The possibility of all-mail ballots has sparked a partisan divide.
President Donald Trump, in a Twitter post Wednesday morning, told Republicans to “fight very hard” against statewide mail-in voting.
“Democrats are clamoring for it,” the president wrote. “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters backed up the president in a prepared statement.
“It is still too early know exactly how COVID-19 will impact the August or November elections in Florida,” Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, said, referring to August statewide primary elections.
Floridians are allowed “to vote by mail for any reason at all,” he added.
“We agree with President Trump that an all vote by mail ballot election is not feasible in Florida,” Gruters said. “Florida would likely see massive delays in counting votes and reporting results for days if not weeks.”
But Florida Democrats, who largely supported the supervisors’ proposal, said they “still believe that statewide vote-by-mail is achievable, and the best way to ensure the principles of our democracy are upheld.”
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terry Rizzo warned that “limiting polling locations could disenfranchise voters in large cities.”
Democrats hailed the effort to expand vote-by-mail and early voting but said it didn’t go far enough.
“It’s the right thing to do to protect lives, and it’s a good first step, but unprecedented times call for great measures to protect our democracy,” Rizzo said in a prepared statement.
If large voting centers are established by local supervisors, Democrats urged the state to “set standards for fair and equitable demographic, geographic and population distribution of the centers” to avoid long lines such as the lines recently encountered by voters in Wisconsin and Texas.
Jones’ letter to DeSantis said that supervisors “must be made a priority for acquisition of supplies,” such as hand sanitizer, to ensure that in-person voting is in accordance with guidelines issued by state and federal health authorities.
In addition to the other requests, the county officials also are seeking additional days to send vote-by-mail ballots and are asking to be able to begin canvassing and tabulating vote-by-mail ballots earlier.
“While there may be additional changes necessary for the August and November elections, which will come to our attention and need your assistance, authorizing these provisions at this time will allow us to prepare for more efficient and safe elections,” Jones wrote.
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