With the earlier start, Santa Rosa voters will be the first to head to the polls and the county will be the first to roll out additional measures to ensure voter safety, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Supervisor of Elections Tappie Villane pointed out that the extended 14-day early voting period in Santa Rosa is a matter of necessity.
“Santa Rosa will historically start on a Monday, a couple of weeks before an election, and it’s primarily because we only at this time have four early voting locations,” said Villane.
In comparison, Escambia County has nine early voting locations and Okaloosa has five.
Early Voting sites in Santa Rosa include the main elections office in Milton, the South Service Center in Gulf Breeze and the community centers in Tiger Point and Pace.
“With our only four locations, two in the north end and two in the south end, we just offer more days for our voters so they’ll have plenty of time to go and cast that vote in person if they choose to do so,” she said.
For those who want to cast their ballots in person, Villane noted that her office has spent the last few months analyzing the effectiveness of coronavirus safety precautions employed during the March Presidential Preference Primary and planning for additional measures.
For the August primary, she notes there will be plenty of poll workers and the county’s emergency management team is helping to ensure there will be plenty of personal protective equipment available.
“They have been supplying us with PPE for our poll workers that will consist of masks. We’ll provide them to our poll workers if they don’t have one, and we’re encouraging them to wear masks,” said the elections supervisor. Other measures include hand sanitizer, wipes and spray.
“We have also invested in sneeze guards, the Plexiglas shields, and we’ll be using those at all of our check-in tables.”
Villane says voters are being encouraged to wear masks, but they are not required to do so.
Additionally, her office has purchased several combination ink and touchscreen stylus pens that voters can use.
“We do check in on a tablet for Election Day and Early Voting, so a voter can pick up on of those pen/stylus combos,” she said. “They can sign in with the stylus side and keep that pen while they vote to use that to mark their ballot. Then, when they go to put their ballot into the tabulator, they can drop that pen/stylus in the dirty bucket and then we will clean those throughout the day.”
In terms of the ideal time to vote to avoid crowds, Villane says it’s hard to say.
“It’s usually pretty busy that first day, especially in the morning. But, again, every election is different. Sometimes we see it get busier the second week of Early Voting. Typically, the one day that we have not seen a lot of crowds or any lines at all is on Sunday. People don’t realize that we are actually on Sunday as well. We’re open that first Sunday.”
Despite the extra time and safety measures in place for early voting, the elections’ chief concedes that many voters are still concerned about showing up in person. As a result, there’s been a significant increase in requests for vote-by-mail ballots.
“Looking back to our March election, we sent out just over 10,000 ballots for the Presidential Preference Primary; for August, we’ve sent out over 20,000,” said Villane.
“If you compare that number to the last presidential year, which would have been the primary in 2016, we sent out a little over 15,000, so even compared to that we have seen an increase.”
To ensure mail-in-ballots are received and counted, Villane says there’s a tool on the Supervisor of Elections website that allows voters to track their ballots.
Whatever method for voting is chosen, it’s important to remember that primary voting is restricted to party affiliation. For example, only registered Republicans can vote in the primary races for Santa Rosa County Commission Districts 1 and 3. Otherwise, the non-partisan school board races in Districts 2 and 4 are open to all voters, as are the county’s two Universal Primaries.
“We have the Superintendent of Schools and we have County Commission District 5. Those are Universal Primary contests because when it was qualifying time, in these two instances the candidates that qualified were all Republicans. There was no one else that qualified; no one from another party and there wasn’t a Write-In,” Villane explained. “So, whoever wins in August will be the person that is elected.”
For those individuals who plan to go to the polls for early voting in Santa Rosa, the county’s four locations will be open daily 8:30am to 4:30pm through Saturday, Aug. 15.
Villane recommends voters bring a photo-signature ID, make their decisions beforehand (with sample ballot) to shorten the time it takes to mark ballots, and wear face coverings as a courtesy to others.