Vote by Mail Has a Long History in Florida, but in 2020 It’s a Coronavirus Salvation and Battleground

July 9, 2020by Steven Lemongello, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)
A poll worker at the First Baptist Church voting site in Hollywood, Florida, wears a protective mask and gloves on March 17, 2020. (Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Voting by mail, a centerpiece of elections in Florida for almost 20 years, is being hailed in 2020 as a life-saving necessity amid the coronavirus pandemic and attacked by President Donald Trump and his supporters as “fraud.”

Elections supervisors can begin sending out mail-in ballots on Thursday in Florida, and they’re preparing for a major jump in voters choosing that option — with several sending every voter in their county an application. But Democrats and liberal groups are arguing that even more should be done, citing the high rejection rates and tight deadlines that have bedeviled voting by mail in the past.

Craig Latimer, Hillsborough elections chief and president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, has long been a vote-by-mail advocate. He stressed that, despite everything, voting by mail is so entrenched in Florida that it won’t be caught up in any political war.

“It’s not a partisan issue in Florida,” said Latimer, a Democrat. “And it never has been.”

Between the 2016 and the 2020 presidential primaries, the use of voting by mail in Florida jumped by more than half, said University of Florida professor Daniel A. Smith, going from 30% of the vote in 2016 to 46% in 2020.

The primary this year was held in mid-March just as the depth of the coronavirus crisis was becoming known.

Latimer said Hillsborough saw the number of mail-in ballots pass 50% in the primaries for the first time, while neighboring Pinellas County has averaged more than 50% in its past few elections. Latimer said Hillsborough is planning to send out 280,000 mail-in ballots for the Aug. 18 state primary, or about 46% of the total Republican and Democratic active voters.

In Orange County, where 33% of the ballots cast in March were by mail, supervisor Bill Cowles, a Democrat, said voters have made about 142,000 requests since Memorial Day, an increase of about 40,000.

“We’re not going to see the massive increase until we get past the primary,” Cowles said. “And then, (former Vice President Joe) Biden, Trump, national Republicans, national Democrats, state Dems, state Republicans, will really push into high gear.”

Seminole County elections supervisor Chris Anderson, a Republican, said there were already 77,000 requests, more than everyone who voted in the August 2016 primaries.

Statewide, Democrats have opened up a 302,000 edge over Republicans in vote-by-mail applications, according to Politico, a jump from an 8,800 edge in 2016.

But Trump’s continued attacks on voting by mail have turned it into a volatile issue nationwide.

“Mail ballots — they cheat,” the president said at a news conference in April. “People cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because there’re cheaters. They go and collect them. They’re fraudulent in many cases.”

But Trump voted by mail himself in Palm Beach County. Asked why, he said, “Because I’m allowed to.”

In May, Trump tweeted, “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.” He also claimed California was sending out ballots to “anyone.”

The tweets earned him a rare rebuke from Twitter itself, which added a fact check noting “there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud” and adding that only registered voters will receive ballots in California.

Florida GOP Chair Joe Gruters said there was no disparity between Trump’s statements and Florida’s vote-by-mail system, arguing that Trump was criticizing states that conduct entire elections by mail.

According to Gruters, Trump believes “individual absentee ballots are good, but vote-by-mail, which is the universal term where they send it to all registered voters, is wrought with fraud. That’s the issue.”

He said his party is “100% in lockstep with the president that we’re against the universal vote-by-mail system. … (But ) people that feel uncomfortable with voting in person, even though we’re months away, anybody has that right to request an absentee ballot. And the Florida Republicans have dominated in years past.”

While California is moving to an all-mail election in November due to coronavirus, several other states have been holding all-mail elections for years without problems, including Colorado and Utah just last month.

Trump and his supporters seem to have been confusing the issue on several occasions. Trump attacked Michigan in May for what he claimed was the state “illegally” sending “absentee ballots” to all voters.

But Michigan is only sending out vote-by-mail applications to all voters, not ballots, and Trump deleted and revised his tweet to attack the mailings. A group of Michigan Trump supporters later burned the applications they received in the mail during a protest outside Grand Rapids.

In Florida, supervisors were split on whether to move to an all-mail election, ultimately deciding it wasn’t doable this year.

But several have done exactly what Michigan did by sending all voters a vote-by-mail request form, including Seminole, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward, Sarasota and Lee counties.

Seminole was one of the first in the state to do so, Anderson said, saving costs by mailing it out with voter cards.

“I have received contact from concerned voters about fraud around vote-by-mail,” Anderson said. “And I’ve explained to them that our system is safe and that our laws are very strong surrounding vote-by-mail.”

But the vast majority of supervisors haven’t followed their lead. Instead, they’ve been doing other kinds of outreach.

In November, Cowles’ office sent every registered voter in Orange County a notice of elections for the 2020 cycle, with his or her vote-by-mail status printed across the top and instructions on how to request one listed at the bottom.

Since then, Orange County has also sent a postcard to 35,000 voters reminding them that their previous requests, which are good for two general elections, have expired and they would have to renew. In addition, they’ve emailed every voter who provided an email address and sent out a card to every new voter.

“We’ve done public service announcements, we’ve been running radio ads, we did print ads in all the weeklies,” Cowles said. “And we’re doing it in unique ways that are adding up to right now.”

Unlike other states such as Kentucky, which counted mail-in ballots for a week after its primary date, Florida allows supervisors to start counting mail-in ballots relatively early, more than three weeks before the election.

Pressure from supervisors led to Gov. Ron DeSantis issuing an order last month giving them even more time to count mail-in ballots before Election Day, though Cowles said it essentially adds just four extra days.

The major issues in Florida for mail-ins, however, have been the ballots that were not counted.

Two years ago, more than 10,000 people across the state had their vote-by-mail ballot rejected by county elections offices for mismatched signatures or other forms of “voter error,” Smith said in 2018.

Voters had very little time to fix any signature problems, as the deadline was the day before Election Day. The state ultimately extended that deadline in 2019.

A lawsuit filed this year by Democratic groups sought to add even more reforms, including eliminating the need to buy a stamp and allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted. A decision is expected in August.

Even without those changes, Latimer said, he was optimistic supervisors could handle the influx.

“Vote-by-mail has been part of our fabric of voting for years and years,” Latimer said. “By Election Day, we’re going to be in a position where all of those ballots will have already been tabulated, except for maybe the ones that came in on Election Day.”


©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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