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Local Elections Supervisors Ask For Flexibility As DeSantis Says Elections Can Hold Until August

Early voting sign sits outside a precinct, guiding voters inside (2014).
Jessica Palombo
/
WFSU News

More than two dozen Florida towns and cities have elections scheduled in April and May. But with a shelter-at-home order and the need for social distancing, some cities have decided an election can wait, and Florida's governor agrees.

As the coronavirus took hold in March, Governor Ron DeSantis refused to postpone Florida's presidential preference primary, saying “people in Florida voted during the Civil War”. Now DeSantis has changed his mind. He agrees with election supervisors that voting scheduled now can easily be re-scheduled for the date of the primary election, which is August 18.  

"But certainly, anyone that requests to me pushing off till August, I don't think there's an election that couldn't be done in August," DeSantis told reporters at the state Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday. "I don't think we'd lose much, so I'm happy to work with them on that."

The request for a delay came from Brian Corley, the supervisor of elections in Pasco County. Corley said voters should not have to choose between their health and their civic duty.  He also said the average age of his poll workers is 66 years old and that they understandably are worried about putting themselves in harm's way. 

"We're in the middle of a pandemic. We're being told by our president and our governor to shelter in place," Corley said. "When you're faced with a serious health risk, that has to come first. I take no pleasure in requesting a delay. I would feel awful knowing that I exposed someone to a virus that would impede their health or possibly kill them -- all because we could not delay a municipal election. That just makes no sense to me."

According to the Florida League of Cities, more than two dozen communities have local elections scheduled in April and May. In North Florida's Big Bend region, they include Havana, Sneads, Grand Ridge, Port St. Joe, Callaway, Springfield and Panama City Beach. Elsewhere, city elections are scheduled in Gainesville, Live Oak and Cedar Key. Some city elections were called off because candidates were unopposed. But three cities in Polk County went ahead and held elections this week, and Bay County plans to hold its elections as scheduled on April 21.

In a related development, election supervisors across the state have written to DeSantis, asking him to take action "as soon as possible" to give counties maximum flexibility in the August primary, including expanding optional early voting from 14 to 22 days and allowing mail ballots to be sent out 45 days before election day, which would be the first week of July. Supervisors across the state are already encouraging voters to vote by mail. Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley is one of them.

"We're trying to make sure that we can get as many vote by mail requests in now," Earley said. "I think all counties including my own are sending out the messaging to the voting public that the best way to vote this fall is likely be vote by mail. Get your requests in. Go to the county supervisor of elections web site. In Leon County, that's leonvotes.org. There's a button for vote by mail request. Go there, fill it out and we'll send you a ballot."

The supervisors are worried they won’t have enough poll workers in the fall and say they don’t have the time, resources or bandwidth to process an all vote-by-mail election.

“Accommodations do need to be made and we’re hopeful the governor will listen to the supervisors and those of us who believe these changes are really needed,” said League of Women Voters Florida President Patricia Brigham.

During the March Presidential Primary, hundreds of poll worker volunteers dropped out due to COVID-19 concerns.

Voting by mail continues to gain popularity with voters across the state. In the March 17 presidential primary, about half of all ballots cast were by mail.

WFSU Public Media's Lynn Hatter contributed to this report.