With the Aug. 18 local and state primary three weeks away, mail-in votes already are streaming into Florida’s 67 supervisor of elections offices.
As the debate rages from the White House and elsewhere about voting by mail, the state of Florida can rest on its laurels — and history.
“We’ve been an almost entirely paper state for many years, said Escambia Elections Supervisor David Stafford. “There was a small segment of votes that were cast on touch screens, to comply with the federal disability requirement.”
Stafford says the touch screens have been retired, in favor of a system that also involves paper ballots.
“But even over the course of the last several election cycles, that total numbers of votes that were cast that way were almost minuscule,” Stafford said. “It’s something that our voters are [now] used to, and then we’ve seen a resurgence in what we used to call ‘absentee balloting.’ We’ve seen a significant increase in that over the course of the last several months.”
According to Stafford’s office, just under 11,000 mail ballots have been received as of Monday, from roughly 36,000 sent to voters requesting them. That’s about 22% of all of the county’s eligible voters in this election cycle. And like everything else these days, you can point in part to the coronavirus as a reason.
“If you think back to where we were in the middle of March when we had the presidential primary, [the pandemic] was kind of on the front end,” Stafford said. “We’re [now] certainly well into the COVID-19 situation, but it was still at sort of the beginning stages, and so we were dealing with that election and trying to find our way.”
But the upswing in mail-in ballots had been underway before the 2020 cycle.
“That’s just been growing in popularity generally; we’ve had some counties that really have put an effort into trying to sign their voters up for vote-by-mail ballots over the course of the last couple of election cycles,” said Stafford. “And one of the things that has clearly come out of it is: a good alternative for people that are concerned about voting in person, is to vote by mail.”
Florida is what Stafford calls a “very mature state” when it comes to mail balloting since 2002, when “no excuse” mail-in balloting – voting that way even if you’re not unavailable -- began. He used 2018 as an example.
“The state averaged out to about a third of the votes cast by mail; a third cast early in person, and then a third that were cast on Election Day,” said Stafford. “And I think it’s safe to say that segment of people who are going to vote by mail will be higher than that in this upcoming primary and general elections. Just how much higher remains to be seen.”
It’s very easy to request a ballot for both next month and the Nov. 3 general election, and a number of ways to get it done.
“The easiest way, I would argue, is just picking up the phone and calling us at 595-3900; we also have a form on our website, escambiavotes.com, “said Stafford. “If you prefer, you can come into the office or you can send us something in writing,” Stafford said.
Counting the ballots already in is set to begin this week.“None of those results are released; we don’t even know what they are until after the polls close,” said Stafford. “There’s a procedure we have to go through to say, ‘OK, tell us what the results are.’ The vast majority of the votes that are cast actually have to be released within the first 30 minutes. So you get a pretty good indication of which way elections are going within that first 30 minutes after the polls close.”
The deadline to request a mail-in ballot in both Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties is Aug. 8. Santa Rosa Supervisor Tappie Villane tells the Pensacola News Journal that they’re fielding about 19,000 requests – 3,000 more than in 2016.