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Coronavirus Could Change The Way Florida Holds August Election

Concerns over coronavirus could make Florida's primary election in August entirely vote-by-mail, according to Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer.
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The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Concerns about the coronavirus pandemic dampened voter turnout across the state of Florida for Tuesday’s presidential primary election.

With federal health experts warning the country may not turn a corner on containing this virus until the summer, some election officials are preparing for an August election that involves nobody going to the polls.

Hillsborough County is reporting about 31% turnout in this election, which factors total votes, not just those who visited the polls Tuesday. But that’s down from about 43% in 2016.

Other factors, including Joe Biden developing a strong lead on the Democratic side ahead of Florida’s primary and incumbent President Donald Trump being the clear Republican nominee, also likely contributed to the lower turnout. But coronavirus dominated the conversation on a day normally reserved for politics.

“Moving forward in August, there’s a lot of talk, and we’re seeing it in other states, that we may end up with an all vote-by-mail election,” said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer.

He said as of Tuesday afternoon he hadn’t had conversations with state officials about the idea yet but said preparing to adjust for August would be the top priority as soon as the dust from the presidential primary had settled.

August 18 is Florida’s primary election for national, state, county, or district offices. While the election is a closed primary for some races, people with no party affiliation can vote to nominate candidates in non-partisan races like school board officials and judges.

Latimer said the election may not be as high-profile as Tuesday’s presidential primary, but it’s when Floridians begin to decide who will serve in roles that have more direct impacts on their lives.

“I tell people all the time that they're [local officials] the ones that are really affecting your pocketbook a lot more than at the federal level,” he said. “And they're also the ones that you have to depend on to fix the potholes in your roads and make sure that your kids are getting a good education.”

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Latimer explained the county has to start recruiting poll workers in May. With health officials predicting the nation could still be fighting COVID-19 in July or August, he thinks moving to an entirely mail-in ballot election may be the only way to successfully run the election.

“Because we won't have the personnel,” he said. “We lost polling sites this time because of fears from the coronavirus. If people don’t want to be polling sites anymore, there's a real good potential.”

Latimer cited other states moving in this direction.

“I know I just saw that Maryland is going to move forward with a mail-in election as is Ohio,” he said. “Oregon, Washington State do all mail ballots. Colorado, they mail a ballot to every voter and then you turn them back in to what they call ‘vote centers,’ but it's just really a drop-off spot for your vote-by-mail ballot.”

He said his office plans to discuss options with the Secretary of State and said he’s spoken with other supervisors of elections in the area who have similar ideas.

“We're all in the same situation that it would be difficult to recruit poll workers, it will be difficult to establish polling sites as we move forward with this, and everything that I'm seeing from the CDC, and what’s coming out of the White House and other officials up there is that you know, we haven't seen the top of this peak yet,” he said.

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Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.