More than 12,000 ballots already cast for primary
Although the primary election is still four weeks away, more than 12,000 voters have already cast ballots through the mail in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford said his office is prepared to handle the Aug. 18 primary and the upcoming election in November in spite of the challenges posed by COVID-19.
As of Friday, more than 36,000 ballots have been sent out to voters in Escambia County through mail-in request. The number is almost double the amount of total mail-in ballots requested in the 2016 primary election, according to Stafford.
"Volume is up at this point as far as the mail-in ballot requests are concerned, and the fact that we've already gotten back as many ballots as we have, still 20-plus days out from the election, is an indication that people are embracing and choosing that method of voting," Stafford said.
Stafford's office has already received 9,262 ballots from the 36,000 voters who requested them.
The number of mail-in ballots requested in Escambia County amounts to almost 21% of all voters eligible to vote in the primary, and requests are still coming in as the deadline to ask for a mail-in ballot is Aug. 8.
Mail-in voting has been growing in popularity since Florida implanted "no excuse" absentee voting in 2002, Stafford said.
"It's been generally growing in popularity, but certainly in this age of COVID, we're seeing that folks that would otherwise go to vote in person, whether in early voting or at their polling place on Election Day, are choosing this as an alternative," Stafford said.
In Santa Rosa County, more than 19,000 mail-in ballots have been requested. Santa Rosa County Supervisor of Elections Tappie Villane said that number was 3,000 more than the number of mail-in ballots in 2016. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is also Aug. 8 in Santa Rosa County.
Villane's office has received more than 3,100 mail-in ballots back from voters so far.
Voters in both counties will also see steps being taken at polling locations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with poll workers wearing masks, hand sanitizer for voters and social distancing measures being put in place.
"We're going to do our best, and in the event that we're not able to spread voting booths out in those smaller locations, we may have to hold voters at the door until the room clears out a little bit," Villane said.
While the locations of some polling places have changed to allow for more social distancing or to avoid having voters vote at assisted living facilities, both counties will have polling locations in all precincts open on Election Day.
Stafford said he was encouraging voters to wear a face covering to the polling place, and his office has purchased cotton swaps to use as a disposable stylus for voters to sign the electronic signature pad when they check-in at a polling place.
"We're also, for the first time, encouraging voters to bring their own pen with them to mark their ballot, a blue or black ink pen," Stafford said adding that pens will be available if voters don't bring them."
Voters may also have to wait outside polling locations until there is enough room inside the build to be able have enough space between everyone.
"We're asking for voters who are going to come vote in person to come prepared, and also to be patient because it's going to be a little different than voters have been accustomed to in the past," Stafford said.
Stafford said the large number of mail-in ballots won't slow down reporting results on election night as Florida law requires election offices to report the mail-in results within 30 minutes of polls closing.
"Probably two-thirds of the ballots that are cast are going to be reported within the first 30 minutes of the polls," Stafford said.
Stafford pointed out that in 2018 elections, votes were split, with about one-third being cast on Election Day, one-third being cast during the early voting period and one-third cast with mail-in ballots.
"That's a significant change of where we were back 15-18 years ago when 80 plus percent of the votes that were cast, were cast in the traditional polling place on Election Day," Stafford said.
'Nonsense':Election experts reject Trump's claim that countries could counterfeit mail-in ballots
Nationwide, President Donald Trump has made it a talking point to question the security of mail-in ballots.
Stafford said he is confident in the security of using mail-in ballots in Florida, which require signature verification. If there is an issue verifying the signature with the ballot, his office calls the person who sent the ballot, and they are able to sign an affidavit attesting that it is their ballot.
"We've been doing it in its current format for 18 years, and I believe we have a secure method for doing so, Stafford said. "And it's been it's been successful."
Jim Little can be reached at email@example.com and 850-208-9827.