Two months before Florida's presidential primary election, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order granting some flexibility of state law regarding processing mail ballots and polling place health and safety.
The biggest leeway given to the state's 67 local supervisors of elections has to do with mail-in ballots and the time frame in which they can be processed. DeSantis' order allows elections offices to begin processing mail-in ballots earlier than previously allowed.
In the order, DeSantis urges state employees to be poll workers in their respective home counties and encourages school boards to close public schools on primary election day -- Aug. 18 -- and general election day -- Nov. 3 -- to better accommodate people headed to the polls.
In regards to health and safety procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis instructs local supervisors of elections to set up social distancing and cleaning practices "insofar as is practicable." These procedures, the governor says, can include spacing out voting stations, installing barriers for poll workers interacting with voters, providing personal protective equipment to poll workers and making cleaning supplies available.
The order comes months after some local supervisors of elections called on DeSantis to provide more flexibility with overseeing the voting process to ensure the health and safety of voters and to prevent an interruption of democracy.
DeSantis' order falls short of requests from local supervisors, who asked for more power to add or change early voting sites and extend the early voting period to 22 days ahead of the election.
While coronavirus has increased calls for mail-in ballots, Rep. Kathy Castor told Tampa Mayor Jane Castor in early April that she would like to see the program expanded. In an April 7 letter to DeSantis, the Florida Supervisors of Elections said the state is not ready for a total vote-by-mail election.
"We encourage voters to take advantage of researching...the mail ballot option, make those requests now so that election administrators can plan accordingly," Chief Deputy Supervisor of Elections for Pinellas County Julie Marcus said in April.
Craig Latimer, the supervisor of elections for Hillsborough County, said he expects the number of mail-in ballots the county receives to double ahead of the November election.
A lawsuit filed in early May, listing top state leaders including DeSantis, challenges Florida's mail-in ballot rules in anticipation of a surge of people voting from home.
The complaint focuses on three points:
- Ballots should be valid as long as they're postmarked by Election Day
- The state should pay the postage for returned mail-in ballots because requiring voters to pay amounts to a poll tax
- Restrictions should be lifted barring people who are paid by organizations from helping voters submit mail-in ballots because it's an infringement on voters' First Amendment rights
A day before the order was issued, local supervisors of elections expressed frustration over not yet hearing from the governor on their requests for flexibility during the upcoming elections.
"It's undeniable that the inaction is severely limiting our planning for the upcoming elections," Brian Corley, supervisor of elections in Pasco County, told the Miami Herald.
The state is expected to finalize ballots on Friday, which begins a two-week period of getting designs to printers, printing ballots and then mailing them out starting July 3 with international addresses.
Early voting for the primary begins Aug. 3.
The deadline to request a mail-in ballot for the primary is July 4. The November election deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Sept. 19.
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