BY DARA KAM
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Face shields, temperature checks and disposable pens are just some of the safeguards Florida officials plan to employ to combat COVID-19, as they brace for elections in August and November.
Collectively, Florida’s 67 county supervisors of elections have decades of experience responding to disasters. They’ve combatted hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and even the historic Bush v. Gore meltdown in 2000.
But the coronavirus pandemic presents a calamity of a different kind, posing an unknown threat, forcing elections officials to plan for a continuum of possibilities.
“It’s extremely challenging,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, who has worked in the elections industry for more than three decades, told The News Service of Florida.
Elections officials had what Earley called a “dry run” during the presidential primary elections as the then, novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease known as
COVID-19, quickly spread through the state in March.
Increase a concern
The number of COVID-19 cases has skyrocketed in Florida over the past few weeks -prompting state and local officials to halt or slow down reopening measures that had been aimed at reviving the economy. Even as COVID-19 cases spike, public health officials predict a second wave this fall could be equally or more virulent, something elections offices must consider as election season nears.
In response to the increase, elections supervisors are taking measures to avoid problems that erupted during the March primaries, when they were faced with cancellations of early-voting, Election Day polling site shutdowns, last-minute poll-worker absences and limited supplies of hand sanitizer and other disinfectant agents.
Some are buying no-contact thermometers to check poll workers’ temperatures and are planning to set up curbside tents so voters can drop off mail-in ballots without getting out of their cars. In addition, their offices are sending out information cards to let voters know if polling sites have changed.
A plan will also be implemented to reduce the number of “touch points” for voters and poll workers, all in an attempt to curb the spread of the highly contagious disease, which was linked to more than 3,600 deaths in Florida as of Tuesday.
Flexibility is key
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer will rely on face shields and Plexiglas barriers to separate poll workers and voters. Latimer will also use one of his county’s busiest Election Day locations during the two-week early voting period. He is
combining some voting sites because of a loss of 21 Election Day precincts, a little less than 9 percent of available locations, all because of COVID-19.
In a recent phone interview Latimer, who also serves as president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association, said supervisors of elections have a lot of experience with handling crises in a state where hurricanes are possible five months out of the year.
“The one thing about the supervisors is flexibility,” he said. “So, I think it’s just a matter of contingencies.”
Right now, however, more than hurricane season, Latimer said the pandemic is the biggest concern.
“We’re seeing these huge spikes in COVID-19 cases. This is dangerous, and people need to heed the warnings out there,” Latimer sated. “We’re being very strict in our office and if you’re an employee you’re getting your temperature taken and you’re wearing a mask. We’re really trying to deal with this right now.”
Measures may differ
While voters throughout the state will encounter a variety of protective measures if they decide to cast ballots in person during the August 8 primary election and November 3 general election, the standards may vary in every county.
For example, while Latimer will test the temperatures of poll workers, he won’t require voters to submit to thermometer screenings. Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci, who was appointed by former Governor Rick Scott two years ago to head the state’s second-largest elections office, said his office won’t either. He said thermometer checks and face masks will be available if voters want them.
But Earley said some Leon County polling sites might require temperature checks on Election Day.
“If that’s what a polling site requires, we cannot force them to change that,” he said. “We do have the option of moving voters out of that site to a new location. So that is a decision point we are trying to weigh as we make our final plans for the upcoming elections.”
To minimize contact during in-person voting, Antonacci said voters will no longer have to submit their driver’s licenses to poll workers before obtaining their ballots.
“We’ve ditched all that, and we have a handheld device that can read your license” he said.
Antonacci’s office is also providing single-use, plastic-encased pens for voters to sign in and fill out their ballots.
“Every facility will have lots of hand sanitizers, alcohol and hand wipes. We’re just going to stock them up,” he added.
Like Antonacci and other supervisors, Earley is also stocking up on disinfecting supplies, and giving each polling site an extra $200 to cover deep-cleaning expenses after the elections.
A viable option
Although President Donald Trump frequently disparages the vote-by-mail process as an opportunity for fraud, most county elections officials are encouraging voters to cast their ballots by mail – an option that’s been available to Floridians since 2002.
Some supervisors expect to see requests for mail-in ballots double.
“We have nonpartisan support for vote-by-mail in this state. It’s an approved
method. It’s a state method. Even the president used it,” Latimer said.
Earley called mail-in voting an “insurance policy” for voters, amid the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.
“This is such a dynamic and changing situation,” he said. “We’re trying to have flexible plans, and it might turn out that it’s not a big deal in August. But then, this fall could make what we’ve gone through this past spring look like child’s play.”
Expect long lines
The supervisors warned that Floridians who show up in person to cast ballots on Election Day need to be patient.
“It’s going to be a slower process,” Latimer said. “We are going to be social distancing. We do have the privacy booths spread out a little bit. We’re reducing the touch points for our poll workers. We’re going to be wiping things down.”
In Broward County, which has been notorious for submitting election results long after the polls close, officials said voters there should expect results to take longer than usual.
“People have to have reasonable expectations about the results on election night,” Antonacci said.
“For my part, I’m going to break my neck to beat Miami and West Palm,” he quipped, pointing to Broward’s southern and northern neighbors. “Competition is good.”