FLORIDA -- As part of the massive economic recovery bill that President Trump signed into law in March, Congress appropriated $20.2 million for Florida to protect the 2020 federal election cycle from the effects of the coronavirus.
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But Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration has yet to formally make a request for that funding – making Florida one of only six states yet to do so.
Part of the agreement is that states must make a 20% match, meaning the state would need to appropriate an additional $4 million.
Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart and 12 Democratic members of Congress (including Tampa Bay area lawmakers Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist) have now penned a letter to the governor asking three questions: When he will make that formal request to the U.S. Election Commission; how does the state intend to make that $4 million match, and how will the state deploy that $24.2 million for election supervisors?
“We urge you to formally request the funds as soon as possible, so funding can be used to prepare for the state’s August 18, 2020 primary election - which is only about 100 days away - and the November 3, 2020 general election,” the letter reads.
A spokesman for the Florida Secretary of State’s office told Spectrum News that the department is working on “formalizing our request.”
“Since we are outside the regularly scheduled legislative session, we are coordinating with the Governor’s Office and Legislature on the 20% match requirement. Once resolved, we will formally submit our disbursement request,” spokesman Mark Ard said in an email.
On Monday afternoon, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried weighed in as well, saying in a statement that “with COVID-19 continuing to spread, the ability of Floridians to exercise their right to vote is clearly threatened.”
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Election Craig Latimer, who officially took over as president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections on Monday, said those federal funds are limited to COVID-related expenses.
“It covers things such as any type of sanitary items like sneeze guards, wipes, hand sanitizers, additional vote by mail supplies that you may need, and additional vote-by-mail ballot stuffers,” he says.
Those funds could also be used to pay for return postage for vote-by-mail ballots. Currently Hillsborough County is one of only nine counties in the state that pays the return postage, but Latimer says he’s heard from several SOEs who say they intend to extend that service for their voters in the upcoming 2020 elections.
Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards says she’s grateful for the additional funding and looks forward to using it on new equipment to handle the additional vote-by-mail ballots that are expected to be utilized during the primary and general elections. But she says her greatest concern is something that money can’t buy.
“One of our biggest problems – or challenges – for all the supervisors of election are people who serve as poll workers are reluctant to do so,” she says.
Hundreds of poll workers in Florida declined to fulfill their responsibilities to work on the March 17 presidential primary, which took place as the country was beginning to completely shut down to deal with the virus.
Another issue for the SOEs, says Edwards, will be finding new polling locations.
“Whether they’re community centers or churches or schools, they are much less likely to want to allow the public to come in,” she says.
Latimer agrees, and says his office has had some difficulties in even speaking with officials who operate schools and civic centers that have been used previously as polling locations, since most have been shut down since the state’s “safer-at-home” lockdowns began in late March.
Taking a cue from election supervisors in South Florida, Latimer sent out postcards today to 660,000 registered voters in the county who are currently not signed up to vote-by-mail, encouraging them to do so.
Although the state will not conduct an exclusive vote-by-mail system this year, it’s expected that will be dominant method of voting by Floridians because of safety concerns of going to the polls with the virus still omnipresent later this summer and into the fall.
Broward County intends to send vote-by-mail forms to 1 million voters who haven’t already requested such forms
Miami-Dade County isn’t going as far, but County Commissioners there did approve sending out more than 500,000 applications for vote-by-mail ballots last week to voters there to promote the option.
Latimer says that there are a fair number of registered voters who are 65 years old and older who usually prefer to vote in person on Election Day in Hillsborough. That option remains open, he says, but adds that it will be a longer process than ever before because of social distancing protocols.
“Voting in person is going to be different. It’s going to be slow,” he cautions. “We’re only going to be able to allow ‘x’ amount of people into a polling site at any time. We’re going to have the blue tape on the sidewalk just like you stand behind at the grocery store.”