While much of society has been shut down for weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, county elections supervisors and some of their staff in the Lake O region have kept working behind their closed doors because there are important elections to be conducted this year.
Those doors were just this week beginning to be reopened to the public. People intending to run for office, though, have still been able to register and fill out their forms in person by appointment in all four counties in the area, with information available to them by phone, email or online as well.
All four counties are seeing increased demand for vote-by-mail ballots (VBMBs), but in at least one — Hendry — most people already are using either that option, absentee ballots or early voting. In any case, in view of uncertainty over trends in COVID-19 infection rates, Florida pollworkers in 2020 could be a mighty bored bunch.
Statewide, requests for vote-by-mail ballots for the Aug. 18 primaries are due in to elections offices no later than 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 8.
There was consensus among the four county elections supervisors and senior staff in Glades, Hendry, Okeechobee and Palm Beach counties that because turnout was down sharply for the March 17, 2020, Presidential Preference Primary (PPP), they should reach out to voters to make them aware of their voting options. So, all four sent out mailings highlighting the VBM option.
In Okeechobee County, the Supervisor of Elections Office closed to the public on March 25 and did not reopen for seven weeks, untiMonday, May 18.
Elections chief Diane Hagan said, “We mailed a postcard offering vote-by-mail as an option to each registered voter household who did not have a request on file.”
But no pressure was intended to be put on voters to make that decision.
“In no way was this postcard meant to imply that VBM voting was required or to demand the voter order a VBM ballot,” Ms. Hagan explained.
“All voting options, Early Vote and Election Day, are still available to all voters for upcoming elections, including vote-by-mail.”
Ms. Hagan reported that her offices had only 1,495 requests for VBMBs for the March primary. As of May 19, they had 2,618 requests for the Aug. 18 primary elections. Go online to voteokeechobee.com to learn more or sign up for a ballot.
Elections Supervisor Aletris Farnam said there was a very low turnout in Glades County for the March 17 PPP. Her offices also closed to the public that month, “but we have to continue to see candidates or potential candidates that come in and want to run for office, because we’re in that season of our job so we can’t lock … the candidates out.” They already have 20 candidates registered for upcoming elections.
Ms. Farnam said Glades also sent out postcards to voters to tell them that VBM “is just an option, for people that feel like they’re not going to want to go to the polls. I will tell you we’ve had a lot of people call and just say, ‘Hey, I didn’t think about it. Yes, I want one.’ So it has increased,” she said.
“We’ve never done that before,” she noted about the mailing. “We had a very low voter turnout in March, and I felt like it had to do with the situation at hand. You know, people were kind of scared to go out … and we just wanted to let them know that there is this option, just in case you want to do it.”
The Glades election office had 469 VBMB requests for the March 17 election, “and so far as of today, May 19, we have 1,208 for the August primary,” according to Ms. Farnam.
The office’s website is at voteglades.com.
The two elections supervisor offices in Hendry were closed for weeks after March 17 as well but reopened May 18. The offices are in LaBelle and Clewiston. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, officials are requesting that any visitors “wear a mask upon entering our offices.”
Hendry County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Hoots said for the March election, she and her staff already “had been putting some things on Facebook all year and we weren’t really seeing a response or an uptick like we have from other things we’ve put out.”
After the primary’s dismal voter turnout, they started “asking voters whether they even want a vote by mail, or was it because they didn’t know how? So that’s why we did do a card, this past week, one postcard per household, every address with a registered voter. We had some phone calls yesterday (May 18), but today’s been like a normal day again.” Which is to say, slow.
But, she explained: “Right now, by law, you can request VBM ballots for four years. (So) we’re asking, do you want it for all four or just for this year? We have some who love to vote by mail, some who love to early vote. … It’s all about choices. You probably won’t see people crowding polling places anymore like you used to because the majority of our people early vote.”
Even if nearly all voters voted early or by mail or absentee, however, there won’t be any polling places closed. “No matter what, by Florida law we have to have the polling places open,” Ms. Hoots said.
The county has had to move one polling place because of the coronavirus pandemic, however. Hendry County Precinct 4 voters, most residing inside the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, used to cast their ballots at the Frank Billie Senior Center.
“But all of Big Cypress closed,” she explained. “They weren’t letting outsiders in, and we were using a polling place there. They said, ‘No, you have to come pick up your equipment.’ We moved it to John Boy Auditorium” instead, she said, admitting that she felt bad about it because of the long drive between the reservation and Clewiston. “But maybe more people will vote by mail,” she said.
As for the VBMB demand, she said there were 1,515 requested for the March 17 voting and, so far, “currently we only have 1,383 requesting. It probably won’t be much different for the November election. Usually they will pick all elections for one year but they say, ‘We’ll see what happens next year’,” when it comes to the extended-time requests.
One other change in Hendry County elections for 2020 is: “The LaBelle city election will be on the August primary ballot. The City of LaBelle just adopted that this past year to move their elections from November. Clewiston’s will be on the general election ballot,” Ms. Hoots noted.
The Hendry supervisor’s website is at hendryelections.org.
Palm Beach County
All Palm Beach County Elections Supervisors Office locations have limited general public access until further notice, the supervisor’s website announces. Voters can take care of almost any business related to their voter registration or ballot choices for upcoming elections by going online to pbcelections.org.
Officials in Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Wendy Sartory Link’s office did not return phone calls for comment before deadline for this story.