BY DARA KAM
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Voters showing up in person Tuesday to cast ballots in Florida’s primary elections appeared to encounter just a few hiccups, with officials deploying thousands of face masks, buckets of hand sanitizer and cartons of disposable pens as safeguards amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tuesday’s low-key voting took place as a record number of Floridians opted to cast their ballots by mail, after elections officials encouraged voters to take advantage of the state’s no-excuse vote-by-mail system to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s been pretty quiet. That doesn’t mean that an individual wasn’t having an issue they needed to deal with, but it’s not been the normal flood of calls,” Liza McClenaghan, state chairwoman of Common Cause Florida, told The News Service of Florida late Tuesday afternoon.
More than 2.2 million Floridians had voted by mail as of Tuesday morning, a nearly 72 percent increase from the 1.28 million votes cast by mail in the state’s 2016 primary elections, according to the Florida Division of Elections website.
A FEW MIX-UPS
The pandemic caused a few mix-ups for people whose voting precincts had been changed or who tried to cast ballots at early voting sites, which shut down Saturday and Sunday, according to McClenaghan, who is the coordinator of volunteers for the Florida Election Protection Coalition.
Some voters encountered lines when dropping off mail-in ballots from their cars at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office on Tuesday, but the lines “moved quickly,” McClenaghan said.
Some mishaps were unrelated to the pandemic but caused by a more timeworn Florida condition: the weather.
A powerful storm in Tallahassee late Tuesday afternoon caused power outages at several precincts, blew over a mail-in ballot drop-off tent outside of the elections office and set off sprinklers at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said.
“That little spot of weather turned into quite the excitement for Leon County elections,” Earley said.
Earley, who said the county had about 35 percent turnout overall, said he also received reports of “a man removing his clothing” outside of a voting site.
“Other than a few shaking heads and giggles, no voters were impacted,” he said.
After the polls closed at 7 p.m., Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci told the News Service that in-person turnout Tuesday was “moderate,” but that overall turnout was the largest in the county’s primary-election history.
“We’re going to be a little over 25 percent, which doesn’t sound like much in the real world, but in the primary, it’s big numbers,” Antonacci said.
The state’s primary elections came amid President Donald Trump’s repeated complaints about voting by mail. The Republican president has linked mail-in voting with election fraud, singling out states that have sent out unsolicited vote-by-mail ballots or applications. Florida voters must request mail-in ballots.
In a seeming reversal, Trump recently encouraged voters in Florida – a battleground state whose 29 electoral votes are considered crucial for a White House win by Republicans and Democrats in November – to vote by mail. He called the state’s system “Safe and Secure, Tried and True,” in a tweet.
“An odd confluence of influences” made it difficult to predict voter behavior in the primary elections, Antonacci said.
“People are scared to show up in person, and at the same time people are being distrustful of putting their ballots in the mail,” he added.
LATE SITES CHANGE
Antonacci acknowledged that some Broward County polling sites were switched late due to cancellations sparked by the pandemic.
“Our last eviction was 10 days ago. They just kept kicking us out. So, when that happens, you have to put a sign up best that you can. You don’t have time to even notify the voters,” he said.
The voting-site changes were posted on the elections supervisor’s website, Antonacci said.
“We had signs in front of every precinct that had been relocated, directing the voters to the new precinct, and we had that relocation list on our website, but sometimes people don’t check the record before,” he said.
‘PRETTY QUIET’ DAY
While areas of the state experienced some glitches, voting throughout Florida proceeded smoothly overall.
“Today was pretty quiet. That’s the word I’d use, and other people keep using. One person even described it as ‘eerily quiet,’” All Voting is Local state director Brad Ashwell, whose organization is part of the Florida Election Protection Coalition, told the News Service on Tuesday evening.
Nearly 80 percent of pre-election day votes were done by mail, according to elections officials.
Almost all polling locations across the state opened on time, with only minor issues, Secretary of State Laurel Lee told reporters mid-day Tuesday.
Lee said wait times at precincts should be minimal, because nearly 2.8 million votes were cast before Tuesday.
“Today is an excellent opportunity for us, at the state and local level, to put into place all of the plans we have been developing these last several months, to ensure that we are abiding by all health and safety protocols that are necessary at the polling locations,” she said.
Antonacci has been in a friendly competition with neighboring elections supervisors in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Election results in the three South Florida counties frequently have been delayed.
The Broward elections official said he received 2,000 mail-in ballots Tuesday evening.
“My goal is to count these vote-by-mail ballots tonight accurately and timely. I want to come in first, and I think we’ve got a head start,” he said.
News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.