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Politics / Issues

Early Voting Starts Monday For Several Florida Counties' Primary Elections

Fran Drago shows her sticker after she voted in the Florida presidential primary, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Cape Coral, Fla.
Fran Drago shows her sticker after she voted in the Florida presidential primary, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Cape Coral, Fla.

For some counties across Florida, early voting for the primary election starts Monday. However, things will likely look different this year. Health concerns due to the coronavirus are changing how voters approach the ballot box.

Several Counties throughout the state, including Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Orange, and Hillsborough, are starting early voting as soon as possible. They're also taking steps to improve safety at the polls as concerns of catching the coronavirus weigh on many voters' minds. To quell those anxieties, Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer says his staff is taking extra precaution:

"We've got plexiglass we've put in early vote sites to have between the poll workers and the voters. We'll be cleaning the privacy booths in the polling room on a regular basis. We have a single-use combination-stylus pen... So [voters] can sign-in with a stylus and use the pen to fill their ballot in and take the souvenir with them."

Latimer says that one-third of Hillsborough voters generally opt for mail-in ballots, one-third go to early voting locations, and one-third vote on election day. But that can change. He explains offering the maximum two weeks for early voting gives residents more flexibility to cast their ballot:

"I want to make it easier for them and accessible. People work on weekends. Sometimes they work different hours."

In Leon County, the typical start date for early voting is nine days before the primary. But Deputy Supervisor of Elections Chris Moore says the county is now offering the maximum number of days the state allows:

"We wanted to try to take all the precautions we could, and if giving those extra five days allows [us] to have a little bit lower density of people inside the room, it protects our election workers, and it protects the public."

In April, Florida election supervisors anticipated a statewide poll worker shortage due to COVID-19. They sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, requesting up to 22 days for early voting before the primary and general elections. He declined but did approve some of the group's other requests—including letting supervisors start counting mail ballots earlier. Now, the group All Voting is Local is urging people to cast their ballot before election day. Brad Ashwell is the organization's Florida Director.

"Recently in the last several months in Georgia, in Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and almost every state that had a primary in the last several months during the COVID pandemic era, we've seen long lines. We've seen lots of problems. In Georgia, they had almost every problem you can imagine, and we don't want to see that relived in Florida," Ashwell says.

His group is encouraging election supervisors to offer the maximum number of days possible for early voting. But for the most densely populated county in Florida, Pinellas, early voting starts August 8. The county's Deputy Supervisor of Elections Dustin Chase says that's the usual start date for the area:

"We recognize that in a presidential general election, there are some voters who only vote every four years, and for those people, we need to make sure that there's some consistency in the entire electoral process."

Chase says voters in Pinellas County historically prefer voting by mail, with less than three percent of its residents going to early voting sites in 2018. But he's still asking people to do their homework before stepping up to the ballot box.

"Things have changed, and we are expecting people will socially distance. So when you approach the early voting site, you might see people out there waiting in line. To help us help you, please be prepared."

He says this year, people will stand six feet apart, and polling locations will offer hand sanitizer.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.