County Commission gets update on precautionary steps being taken to ensure safety of voters during pandemic
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As of July 1, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office already had received 104,000 requests for vote-by-mail ballots, which is a record, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner told the County Commission this week.
“We’ve never had that many, Turner pointed out, even “for a General Election in Sarasota County.”
And that count, Turner said, “is continuing to grow by the minute, by the hour, by the day.”
Although Turner was appearing before the board to present his proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year — which will begin on Oct. 1 — concerns about the potential effects of the novel coronavirus public health emergency on the elections this year dominated the discussion.
The first vote-by-mail ballots for the Aug. 18 Primary were due to be mailed on July 2 to military personnel and county citizens residing overseas, Turner noted.
Given the COVID-19 situation and the high level of interest in the upcoming elections, Turner told the commissioners, he is just hopeful that the votes all can be tallied before Election Day ends on Nov. 3.
Turner also explained that the vote-by-mail opportunity was implemented in Florida in 2002 as a no-excuse form of absentee voting. The only change over the past 18 years, he added, has been the change of the terminology to “vote by mail,” which is a better representation of that option.
As for the upcoming elections: Turner noted that he and his staff will provide nine days of early voting ahead of the Aug. 18 Primary and 14 days prior to the General Election. In the latter case, he said, “We’re including the optional Sunday before the General Election. My thought is that we should take advantage of every day we can …”
Then Turner talked about the need for poll workers. “We have been doing a really big push,” he said.
In March, after fears of the pandemic prompted a number of past poll workers to bow out of helping with the Presidential Preference Primary, he continued, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis was very helpful to his staff. In fact, Turner said, some county employees helped out as poll workers for that primary.
For the upcoming elections, Turner continued, about 180 positions need to be filled. (See the related article in this issue.)
Persons interested in helping out can apply through his website, Turner noted. A link is at the top of the homepage, he added.
Further, he and his staff anticipate polling place changes, Turner said.
“We’re trying to minimize the impacts on the voters of COVID-19,” he told the board. For example, while his staff members did not have sufficient time ahead of the March primary to mail out notices about polling place changes, Turner continued, they plan to take such a step in advance of the August and November elections.
Additionally, Turner explained, “Our workers will have face masks and/or face shields [at polling places].” All surfaces and ballot-marking tools will be sanitized, he pointed out.
“We will encourage the public to social distance or wear face coverings,” Turner told the commissioners. However, he stressed that the mask ordinance the Sarasota City Commission approved this week will have no impact on voters, according to the law. (See the related article in this issue.)
His staff, Turner said, cannot take any steps that would give any citizen the impression that the staff is trying to suppress voting in any manner. “I can’t impede [a person’s] constitutional right to vote.”
Concerns about impacts of the public health emergency
“I don’t think anybody up here would want to trade places with you this year,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Turner. She referenced national political controversies, summing it up as “Lots of hair-on-fire [news coverage].”
When Detert asked why his Fiscal Year 2021 budget is down 4.9%, compared to the total for the current fiscal year, Turner pointed out that many of the expenses for the upcoming elections will be incurred before this fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. His staff cannot wait until Oct. 1, he added, to start planning for the November General Election, for example, “because it’s too late at that point.”
Still, he continued, because of the COVID-19 concerns, his budget “is probably down less than it has been in the past” for a fiscal year including a General Election, given the preparations in each preceding fiscal year for those events.
If he encounters any problems, Turner told the board members, he would make a request to address those with them. “You and your staff have always been fair. … Jonathan Lewis has been helpful to us.”
Still, Turner acknowledged, “These are unprecedented times. I don’t have a template to go through …”
In response to another question from Detert, Turner said he and his staff have had some challenges with owners of polling places raising concerns because of the public health emergency. Some do not want their facilities used, he said, while others have talked of “certain strings attached.”
“There’s only certain strings that you can attach to voting. I have explained that,” Turner added.
Nonetheless, he continued, “The community is stepping up in a lot of ways to work with us. … This is a partnership with all of us in this county to conduct elections.”
Then Detert talked about primaries conducted in recent weeks in the United States, with social distancing requirements leading to hours-long waits for voters to cast ballots. “I for the first time have applied to have an absentee ballot,” she told Turner. “I really enjoy going out on Election Day or early voting,” she added, but the COVID-19 situation had persuaded her to take a different tack this year.
“I requested a vote-by-mail ballot this time for myself,” Turner responded. “I don’t usually do that.” However, he said, “Because we’re telling people that is a safe alternative … I figured I should lead by example.”
He filled out the form online through his office’s website, he said, so he will have first-hand experience in seeing how the system works.
As for the possibility of long waits: “With social distancing,” Turner explained, “it is going to create fewer voting booths and potentially fewer check-in stations and longer lines … We’re going to do the best that we can. … The public’s going to have to be patient with us.”
“I can’t guarantee what those wait times are going to be,” he added. “Under normal circumstances, we don’t really have much of a wait here in Sarasota County.”
“The more you can warn people,” Detert told him, the more people will “know what to expect when they get [to their precincts].”
“I think that’s a valid point, Commissioner,” Turner replied.
Security of vote-by-mail ballots
In response to questions from Commissioner Christian Ziegler, Turner explained details about how vote-by-mail ballots are mailed to citizens and then how the returned ballots are stored at his office and counted.
For example, Turner said, if a person who is a part-time resident wants a ballot mailed to a location other than the one on the citizen’s voting record, the person has to make such a request in writing. Then, Turner continued, “Once we mail those ballots, they’re not forwardable.”
If the voter does not receive the ballot, he added, his staff will try to remedy the situation to ensure the person receives a ballot.
Citizens in the county can drop off vote-by-mail ballots at the three Supervisor of Elections offices — in Sarasota, Venice and North Port — or at any of the early voting locations during the hours those facilities are open, Turner explained. To be counted, they must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day, Turner has said, because that it when the polls close.
“We check every signature” against the signature on the voter’s record, he continued, “to make sure that that is in fact the person [who voted].”
“If there is a problem with the signature,” Turner added, “we reach out to the voter.” The person can “cure” any questionable signature by showing the Supervisor of Elections Office staff a valid form of ID, he said.
Only the county’s Canvassing Board can reject ballots, Turner stressed. That board comprises a county judge, a member of the County Commission — or alternate — and he himself, he said. “We have the final say on all of those ballots, whether they’re accepted or whether they’re rejected,” he reiterated his earlier comment.
The vote-by-mail ballots are kept in rooms that are locked, with alarms. Anyone who enters those rooms has to log in, Turner pointed out.
Then the ballots are opened only in front of a Canvassing Board member, Turner said. Typically, the board designates him to observe that process.
After all the ballots have been counted, he added, the ballots once again are locked up.
“It’s pretty complex and it’s a lot of work,” Turner said. “But we take pride in what we do.”
Ziegler commended Turner and his staff. Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike have respect for Turner and “full faith” in his work, Ziegler said.
His staff members, Turner replied, “are dedicated to the voters of this county.”