President Trump says voting by mail is “horrible” and “corrupt” because the “tremendous potential for voter fraud” helps Democrats win elections. But county-level election supervisors in his home state of Florida — where he recently cast a vote for himself, by mail — disagree, and are doing everything they can to ensure this crucial swing state can hold a safe election during the coronavirus pandemic.
While Florida isn’t prepared to hold an all vote-by-mail election, Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, the three most populous counties in the state, plan to send absentee vote-by-mail registration forms to every registered voter ahead of the state’s August primary and November’s general election.
Many more counties have increased their outreach efforts to residents with mailers, postcards and public information campaigns in order to radically increase vote-by-mail sign-ups. A handful is planning to provide prepaid postage for voters to return their ballots.
Two counties, Santa Rosa and Citrus, even used emergency alert systems to text residents to encourage them to sign up to vote by mail. Citrus’s text went out to 107,000 residents, netting 2,200 new vote-by-mail sign-ups.
“Certainly every election cycle we reach out to voters giving them the options they have in the method of voting,” Susan Gill, supervisor of elections for Citrus County, in the west-central part of the state, said in an email. “This cycle is more urgent.”
Allowing citizens to vote by mail was already important, in order to allow people who can’t make it to the polls on Election Day to still exercise their rights. But this year, with the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures designed to counter its spread, mail-in ballots are all the more vital.
Multiple states postponed primaries because of the pandemic. Illinois and Wisconsin held theirs ― which resulted in multiple positive cases of coronavirus and at least one death linked to in-person voting. The November election can’t be postponed, so state and local election officials will need to ensure that voters are both aware of, and able to use, safe options to cast their ballots.
Florida is one of 34 states that either allow residents to vote absentee by mail for any reason or conducts all-mail elections. It is very easy to obtain an absentee ballot in Florida, election officers say. Voters can apply online, through the mail or over the phone. They then receive absentee ballots for the next four elections before having to renew their absentee ballot request.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties have pushed their voters to sign up to vote by mail in Florida since no-excuse absentee voting was implemented in the state in 2002 as part of a set of reforms following the 2000 presidential election debacle. The Republican Party long held an advantage in vote-by-mail sign-ups, particularly among elderly voters, but Democrats have caught up in recent years.
Mail-in ballots accounted for approximately 30% of votes cast by Floridians in the 2016 and 2018 elections; in some counties, two-thirds of votes came by mail.
The state’s county-level election supervisors, who hail from both political parties, also have a long record of educating county residents about vote-by-mail options. The coronavirus pandemic has led them to dramatically increase their outreach.
“We are doubling down on our efforts and using every avenue we can to creatively reach our voters,” Vicki Davis, supervisor of elections for Martin County, said in an email.
One big reason why election supervisors are ramping up vote-by-mail educational efforts is that the state’s March 17 presidential primary revealed the problems that awaited them in future elections.
“We had hundreds of poll workers call in sick or no-show. Polling locations cancelled at the last minute,” Lori Edwards, supervisor of elections for Polk County, said in an email. “And, that was early in the pandemic. I’m very concerned that we will have a hard time keeping polling locations and recruiting workers, so we are trying to take the pressure off precinct voting.”