ORLANDO, Fla. — With early voting beginning for Florida’s upcoming August 18 primary election, votes are already coming in.
Central Florida's supervisors of elections say they are seeing growing requests for vote-by-mail ballots, in part due to concerns about the ongoing pandemic.
“We already know for the August 18 primary, our first initial drop equaled our previous high in number of ballots given out,” said Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles. “The key thing is, how many of those ballots get voted and returned? That’s how we measure participation.
"But we do expect once we move off of the primary and into the presidential election and everyone is focusing on the presidential election, which is always the highest election every four years, we’ll see the number of requests continue to increase to a new level high,” Cowles said.
“A year and a half ago, we planned on sending out 45,000 vote-by-mail ballots for the primary, and maybe as many as 60,000 for the general election,” said Lake County Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays. “We’ve already had requests for 47,000 and we’ve mailed out over 46,000 for the primary, so we’ve exceeded those projections already, and I’m sure a big portion of that is due to the pandemic.”
Eager to avoid adverse impact from the pandemic, the Florida Democratic Party says it has registered more than 1 million party voters to vote by mail.
“Everybody has pivoted,” said FDP Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo. “We want everybody to vote by mail. It is a safe and reliable way to vote, but especially this year, when we don’t know what’s going to happen and circumstances may be different.”
NOTE: Florida’s August 18 election is a “closed primary” election, meaning you must be a registered Democrat to vote in the Democratic races, and a registered Republican to vote in the Republican races. This is significant, for in some races, including the Orange County sheriff election, there are no Republicans and five Democrats, meaning Democratic voters will likely choose the next Orange County sheriff.
Rizzo said vote-by-mail will help get ballots in early, avoiding potential problems running up to election day.
Voting by mail is one of three ways to cast a ballot in Florida. State data shows Florida Republicans often vote by mail more than Democrats.
That was true in the 2020 Presidential Preference Primary, along with the 2018 and 2016 General elections where Republicans cast an average of 60,000 more votes by mail than Democrats statewide.
While state Republicans favor the process, President Donald Trump has called vote-by-mail efforts “corrupt” and “fraudulent” in a series of tweets in recent months.
While the president’s tweets criticizing vote-by-mail efforts are broad, campaign leaders say the president’s point is more targeted.
“What the president is concerned about is this blanket ‘everything has to be done by mail, ballots mailed out to everyone regardless if that’s the path you would like to take,” said Rick Gorka, Regional Communications Director for Trump Victory, a joint committee of Donald J Trump for President and Republican National Committee.
Gorka says the president’s argument is not so much about Florida, but rather about other states without a broad vote by mail system in place already.
“What we’ve seen in states where they have tried to force this vote-by-mail on states that don’t have experience and infrastructure and resources to get it done, you can look at places like Nevada,” Gorka said.
Nationally, there are several different and distinct vote-by-mail methods.
Florida is among 29 states and District of Columbia with “no-excuse absentee ballot”, meaning voters can request a ballot by mail without having to give any reason for why they cannot turn out to a physical polling location on Election Day.
Five states conduct “all mail voting” elections, and 16 states require a valid excuse from a voter as to why they cannot physically show up to a polling location on Election Day in order to vote by mail.
However, some states are looking into expanding vote-by-mail-access depending on the course of coronavirus, particularly later this year, including California, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Michigan. Some states sending ballots to voters specifically, while others that would normally require an excuse in order to vote by mail, would allow the coronavirus to be counted as an excuse.
“Here in Lake County, I can tell you that we have multiple points of references to assure there is no fraud in our system,” Hays said. “Right here in Florida we check every returned ballot.”
It is a consensus among supervisors that Florida’s election system as is, is safe and protected from fraud or intrusions.
“We work on a concept of one vote per person per election, and so if you vote your vote-by-mail ballot and it's returned and received here, then it blocks you from being able to vote at an early voting site or on Election Day,” Cowles said.