DeSantis Keeps FL Election Planners Guessing On What Rules Will Be Relaxed For Pandemic

Newly sworn-in Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during an event at the Freedom Tower on January 09, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images,)
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April 24, 2020 3:52 p.m.
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When local elections officials in Florida sounded the alarm that they needed the governor to make changes to the state’s election policies in light of the pandemic, they put in bold and underlined type that they wanted action from him “as soon as possible.”

Nearly three weeks later, they’re still waiting to find out from him what, if any, of their requests the governor is willing to grant.

Across the country, election officials are scrambling to scale up their vote-by-mail programs, predicting that many voters, under stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the virus, will prefer to avoid polling places. At the same time, officials are figuring out how to make in-person voting safer for those who still use the option during the pandemic. In some ways, Florida was better positioned than most other states, because a third of its electorate already votes by mail. 

So when its association of supervisors of elections sent DeSantis a letter on April 7 warning that a full mail-in election wouldn’t be possible and asking him for assistance, it was taken as a sign that election officials in most of the country faced steep challenges.

While Florida’s next statewide election isn’t until August, the supervisors association said that staffing and logistical decisions were being made now. They’ve suggested that the governor, via executive order, could relax a handful of the state’s elections rules. The tweaks would help them handle the influx of absentee voting they’re expecting, while adjusting in-person voting in a way that will help them deal with the staffing shortages they anticipate and prevent individual polling locations from becoming too crowded.

“Basically, it’s a lot of planning that we’re having to cram into a very short timeframe,” association head Tammy Jones, who is also Levy County’s election supervisor, told TPM. “And we’re waiting on the governor to see if he’s gonna give us some flexibility, which could possibly change the scheme of the landscape.”

Part of the urgency is many face deadlines for county budget requests — some by May 1, some by June 1 — that will cover what they can spend for the Nov. 3 election.

“Budgeting is hard enough,” Palm Beach County Supervisor of Election Wendy Sartory Link told TPM. “But we are now having to budget under a couple of different assumptions. We have no idea whether the governor will permit some or all … of the requests that have been made. It’s really hard to guess what you’re budgeting for.”

Supervisors were hopeful they’d get an answer from the governor soon on what he’d be willing to approve, and said that the secretary of state’s office had been in conversations with them about the proposals. But the lack of clarity is also frustrating voting rights groups as they work on retooling their operations and want to know what the terrain will look like.

“The state needs to start stepping up and letting the supervisors of elections and the public know that we are going to have efficient and fair elections in the state of Florida,” Patti Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters-Florida, told TPM. “The governor needs to respond publicly about these changes that are being asked for.”

Days after the supervisors sent their requests, her group and several others sent the governor their own list of proposed actions the state could take. Some of the groups are concerned about any major reductions in the number of polling places. 

“We are being met with silence,” Brigham said.

The supervisors are seeking various “flexibilities” within state’s election rules — flexibilities they think the governor could grant just by an executive order.

They want to lengthen the period during which absentee ballots are sent out, and have asked for the ability to begin processing those completed ballots sooner.

They’re also seeking the option to extend early in-person voting, and want to utilize on Election Day early voting sites, which operate like vote centers, in that voters can go to any site in their county rather than their assigned precinct. In doing so, officials may seek to consolidate some Election Day precinct locations, while also spreading out some of the in-person traffic each polling place would get, making it easier for voters to socially distance.

DeSantis has not told the supervisors if he will approve some or all of these requested changes, even as his administration has worked with local officials on other election issues related to the pandemic.

A major question facing election administrators as they plan for the fall election is how they’ll staff voting sites, as poll workers tend to be older residents. Knowing how many polling locations they’ll need to staff will help them deal with this challenge, they told TPM.

“We know now there’s gonna be an issue with staffing adequately polling places themselves,” said Brian Corley, Pasco County’s supervisor of elections. He said he’s preparing a budget proposal with “a huge asterisk” that’s “TBD based on what the governor allows us to do.”

“It’s problematic when you don’t know what the layout is going to be,” he said.

There are some legal questions as to whether the changes could be done just by executive order or if the legislature would need to make them. Jones said the association used as a template the elections-related actions the governor has approved on the local level after hurricanes, adding that, “we weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel.”

When TPM reached out to the governor’s office about the lack of response to the letter, a DeSantis spokesperson on Friday passed TPM along to the Secretary of State Laurel Lee ’s office. Lee’s spokesperson did not respond to the specific questions TPM sent Friday morning.

But, earlier this week, in a response to TPM’s inquiry for a separate story, Lee’s spokesperson said in a statement that her office had discussed the “proposed accommodations” with the supervisors and that “we appreciate” their “input.”

“We continue to work with them on the issues that confront their individual counties and Florida’s elections as a whole,” the statement said. Supervisors told TPM Lee’s office had also been working with them in the state’s effort to secure additional election funding through recent federal COVID-19 legislation, and had taken their message about the April 7 letter to the governor.

“Talking to the Secretary of State, I know they’ve been in talks with the governor’s office and stressing the importance of the need for the timeline situation we’re in,” Jones said, adding that “we have to prepare and be ready.”

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