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Vote By Mail: Lessons Learned From Florida’s 2020 Primary Election

Approximately two million Floridians voted by mail during last month's primary election.
Al Diaz
Approximately two million Floridians voted by mail during last month's primary election.

Election Day is in less than two months. A record number of Floridians are expected to use vote-by-mail ballots. The August primary was a dress rehearsal for November’s election. This year, who you vote for may be as important as how you vote.

During last month’s primary, more than two million Florida voters chose to vote by mail with about 20,000 ballots rejected.

WLRN is here for you, even when life is unpredictable. Local journalists are working hard to keep you informed on the latest developments across South Florida. Please support this vital work.Become a WLRN member today. Thank you.

On the Florida Roundup, hosts Tom Hudson and Melissa Ross spoke with Craig Latimer, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, and Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation.

MELISSA ROSS: All of the election supervisors across Florida expect a crush of ballots when early voting begins, because a majority of residents in recent surveys have said they plan on voting by mail. Many people would like to avoid in-person voting due to the pandemic, although some of them worry that their ballot might not get counted or even received in time because there have been slowdowns at the U.S. Postal Service. Under state law, a ballot wouldn't count if it gets there to the county elections office after the 7:00 p.m. deadline on Election Day. What do you think will be the biggest challenges?

CRAIG LATIMER: Florida is really lucky. We've had no excuse, vote by mail since 2002. Routinely over a third of our voters have voted by mail each election. So this isn't something new to us. Yes, it'll be an increase in volume. But, you know, the legislatures put some really great laws around vote by mail to make sure it's safe and secure.

Also that we're going to have results on election night. In Florida, we can begin processing the vote by mail ballots 22 days before the election. So that gives us adequate time to be prepared. so on election night when we release those unofficial results, The first results released are going to be vote by mail, and then early vote and then the precincts as they start coming in. But, you know, with the post office, we really watch this closely during the recent primary election.

And I can tell you that I was looking at envelopes where the voter had signed it and dated it, for instance, August 17th, and it arrived August 18th. So, I mean, they literally were like a one day turnaround. Now we urge people to, you know, make sure you've got adequate time to get your ballot back because you're 100 percent correct. Florida doesn't recognize postmarks. [Under] Florida law, you have to have that vote by mail ballot at the supervisor's office by 7:00 p.m. on election night.

TOM HUDSON: How do you think Florida did handling the big increase that we saw in vote by mail during the August primary?

DAN SMITH: It was a huge increase. We had nearly 60 percent of the almost four million ballots cast in the August primary cast by mail. And that is a dramatic increase from the August primary four years ago. And it is paralleling the increase in voting by mail during this pandemic that we saw amped up back in the March presidential preference primary and on election night in August.

HUDSON: Most races were settled. We knew the winners before we went to bed in August. Does that bode well for November and Florida and the increase — the likely increase — in vote by mail ballots?

SMITH: We are talking about preference primaries among Republicans and Democrats, for the most part that were in August, as well as in the March primary. We had a lot more NPA, no party affiliates, or independents voting in the August primary because of county races and other nonpartisan races. But these are also super voters.

And we need to remind ourselves that these are folks who turn out to vote and generally know how to vote. They may not know how to vote by mail — but they know how to vote. When you talk about the November election, you know, we're going from four million to likely nine million votes cast. So things may have been smooth in August and you know, generally speaking, they were. There are some hiccups in every election, but we are probably going to double the volume of votes coming in.

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Denise Royal produces The Florida Roundup. Her broadcast experience includes writing and producing for NBC’s The Today Show, Weekend Today, Weekend Nightly News, and MSNBC. She also worked as a Writer/Producer for ABC News and Nightly Business Report on PBS.