TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Election Day is just weeks away and more than 2 million ballots have already been cast in Florida.
It’s been a contentious few months on the campaign trail and a chaotic year as state and local officials – and voters – grappled with the coronavirus pandemic, making adjustments to election plans.
8 On Your Side is Your Local Election Headquarters and is working to get voters answers about any concerns they may have. Here are some of the topics we hear about most:
The integrity of our elections has been a major topic on the campaign trail – and a major concern for voters.
And while there were some complaints of alleged fraud during August’s primary election in Florida, the numbers show it’s not widespread. Records from the Department of State show out of the 21 million people who live in Florida, only 12 reported alleged fraud during the primary.
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, who reported a group for alleged fraud during the primary, and State Attorney Andrew Warren both stressed that fraud is rare in our elections.
“We’re committed – if we had a credible allegation – of prosecuting it but really, the bigger concern is voter suppression,” Warren said recently. “No one can even remember an instance of a law enforcement agency or an election authority coming to us and saying ‘hey, we have an allegation or evidence of voter fraud that needs to be investigated and prosecuted.'”
Vote-by-mail is another topic that’s been brought up by both presidential campaigns frequently in the past months. Voting rights groups have said they anticipate huge mail-in numbers in November’s election and, earlier this year, said they believed change is necessary in Florida, where elections are decided by razor-thin margins.
8 On Your Side found out thousands of ballots were rejected in August’s primary – simply because they showed up too late or had a signature issue that wasn’t cured in time.
If you’ve never voted by mail but want to for the general election in November, you will have to request a ballot. The last day you’re able to request a mail ballot in Florida is Oct. 24 at 5 p.m.
If you’re voting by mail, your ballot must be returned and received by 7 p.m. on Election Day – Nov. 3. The Department of State recommends voting and sending your ballot back as soon as you can. You can also return your ballot to secure drop boxes located at your supervisor of elections offices and early voting sites. You can check your local elections supervisor’s website for drop box locations.
If your local supervisor of elections finds your signature is missing or doesn’t match the one they have on record, they will notify you so you can complete a “vote-by-mail ballot cure” form. The deadline to submit that form, along with a copy of your identification, is no later than 5 p.m. on the second day after the election.
If you’re concerned about your mail-in ballot being counted, all of the supervisors of elections in the Tampa Bay area have set up tracking pages on their website where you can go to make sure your ballot has been received and counted. The tracking page will also provide you with information on how to resolve any potential problems with your ballot.
Postal service concerns
Some voters have voiced their concerns about trusting the United States Postal Service with their ballots. One Florida lawmaker earlier this year asked why the USPS was hiring more than a thousand people to help process mail in Florida four days after the general election.
But the agency sent 8 On Your Side a statement saying they’re committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner.
“The Postal Service has more than enough capacity, including collection boxes and processing equipment, to handle all election mail this year, which is predicted to amount to less than 2% of total mail volume from mid-September to Election Day,” a spokesperson said.
If you’re still concerned your vote-by-mail ballot won’t be counted – you can track it online after you mail it, as mentioned above. Supervisors of elections have recommended returning your mail ballot as soon as possible to ensure it arrives on time. You also have the option of dropping your mail ballot in drop box locations designated by your local elections supervisor.
Some voters have raised concerns about technical issues or glitches surfacing on Election Day. Earlier this month, Florida’s online voter registration site had a meltdown hours before the registration deadline.
The state reopened registration the next day for seven hours to make up for the time lost to website issues. State officials later said there was no indication that a cyberattack was to blame for the system’s problems.
Months before the deadline debacle, 8 On Your Side pressed the state for answers on whether or not the online registration site would be ready for a surge in voter registration activity.
We found during the 2018 election, voters reported they couldn’t access the site in the hours before the registration deadline. Earlier this year, there were reports that the website had trouble again, prompting Florida Democrats to tweet that the problems amounted to voter suppression.
The nonpartisan group All Voting is Local told 8 On Your Side they reached out to Florida’s secretary of state in February asking about the security and stability of the state’s website. As of June, when they spoke with Investigative Reporter Mahsa Saeidi, they hadn’t received a response.
Another instance that raised red flags over the summer was a high-profile social media hack that landed a Tampa teen behind bars.
When Twitter was hacked in July, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis voiced his concern that similar hacks could target Florida’s economy and elections.
After the hack, he released a statement where he noted his worries about an attack on the Twitter account of an election supervisor that could have implications for elections.
“You know, (claiming) we’ve extended voting hours by an extra hour but that was never the case and then that gets out and gets reported,” said Patronis.
Long lines at the polls
Early in-person voting is already underway in some states, and some voters have reported waiting in line for hours before they were able to cast their ballots. Some voters don’t want to wait long to cast their ballots, and with coronavirus still on the mind, many want to avoid crowds. And while voting by mail is an option for those who don’t feel comfortable being around a lot of people, there still are many who prefer casting their ballot in person.
Most elections supervisors in Tampa Bay area counties are encouraging people who want to vote in person but don’t want to risk being in a crowd to take advantage of early voting. Early voting is set to begin Monday, Oct. 19 in most local counties except for Hardee and Highlands.
But voting early still doesn’t mean there will be no lines, especially on the first day, according to elections officials.
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said lines are inevitable but said they’re doing as much as they can to help voters while administering such a highly-scrutinized election in the midst of a global pandemic.
Hillsborough County’s elections supervisor agreed, saying there could be lines.
“We always see a lot of enthusiasm around the first day of early voting. That and the fact that we will be following CDC guidelines, with social distancing and limited capacity, means we could see lines on Monday,” Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer said in a statement.
Hernando County Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson also said the first day will likely be the busiest. She offered some tips to voters who want to take advantage of early voting and avoid crowds.
“Avoid peak times – first thing in the morning and at lunch. Voters also need to remember we are open on Saturdays and Sundays,” Anderson said in a statement. “We are encouraging people to bring their pre-marked sample ballot to help save time once inside the polling room. Voters also need to make sure their information is up to date prior to entering the polling room.”
Voters in Hernando County can visit the supervisor of elections’ website to check wait times at early voting locations. Hillsborough County also provides that information online.
“And I want to remind voters that we have 14 days of early voting in our county, so if they go Tuesday or Wednesday, it’s likely to be less busy than on Monday,” Latimer added.
Susan Gill, the elections supervisor in Citrus County, said the slowest times at early voting sites in her county are typically 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Sunday, Oct. 25 will likely be the slowest day, she noted.
Gill also said her office is making additional vote tabulators available at the busiest early voting sites and at Election Day polling sites. She’s encouraging voters to study and mark their sample ballots to use as a guide at the poll.
“Above all, we ask voters to be patient, respectful and courteous to fellow voters and election workers,” Gill said in a statement. “Our friends and neighbors are working at polling locations to enable us to be able to cast our votes during what has been a very difficult year. Many election workers are working elections for the first time. Let’s appreciate them.”
Meanwhile, in Polk County, Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said while she doesn’t anticipate the hours-long waits that voters in other states have seen, there could be some lines due to the expected record number of voters during the early voting period.
“This a good opportunity to remind voters that there are many more Election Day precincts than there are early voting sites. As a result, lines are almost always shorter at Election Day polling locations,” Edwards said in a statement. “So here’s my tip for voters: If you want to vote in person, and your schedule permits, vote at your Election Day polling location between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. That’s usually the least busy time to vote.”
Misinformation and disinformation
Election experts have sounded the alarm about the spread of false information threatening the upcoming election – a threat they say comes from both outside and inside the United States.
The Leon County supervisor of elections recently told 8 On Your Side Investigative Reporter Mahsa Saeidi that his office is getting hundreds of calls a day from voters who are trying to get accurate information on several issues including vote-by-mail and instances of fraud.
“It’s just a lot of disinformation and misinformation out there,” Supervisor Mark S. Earley said.
To be clear, there are two types of false information. Misinformation is the spread of false information without malign intent. Disinformation is the spread of false information with an intent to mislead.
So how do you determine what information you’re seeing is false and what’s true? A disinformation fellow with the bipartisan group Alliance for Securing Democracy says the most important thing is to check the source and cross-reference it with other reports.
“If you see a story that breaks and the outlet or the source of it is something that you’re not familiar with, that’s a time you need to run a Google search and see who else is covering that story,” Schafer said. “If it’s a bunch of other outlets that you’ve never heard of, that’s probably an indication that it’s a piece of disinformation.”
Problems at the polls
From concerns about a lack of poll workers to worries over potential voter intimidation, some Floridians have said they’re worried about what they’ll experience once they actually get to their polling place.
Earlier this year, supervisors of elections in Tampa Bay said they were dealing with a shortage of poll workers due to the coronavirus pandemic. They had to get creative when it came to staffing for the primary election in August and said a shortage of workers was their biggest concern heading into November.
“Elections are very very important and we’ve got to get them done and we’re going to get them done,” Supervisor Gill of Citrus County said. “But we need people, citizens and such, to step up.”
When it comes to voter intimidation, some have said they’re concerned about who will be watching the polls. Poll watchers are allowed to observe procedures at polling sites, watch the conduct of voters and officials, review the list of people who have voted and challenge a voter in writing that’s delivered to the clerk.
But poll watchers are not allowed to interfere with the election board or the orderly conduct of any election. They also can’t wear any political ads or gear or volunteer to help voters. If a voter has an issue and they’re not getting assistance, they can turn to poll watchers but there are specific procedures watchers will have to follow.
According to Florida law, watchers must be registered to vote in the county they’re serving. Each candidate and political party can have one watcher in each polling room or early voting area.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said earlier this year there are no plans in Florida to stray from the law, which says poll watchers cannot be law enforcement and/or a candidate.
“So we have the ability to have folks, personnel – not law enforcement – we have state employees that were offered for the primary,” said Gov. DeSantis. “I think that’s done typically by either volunteers or by personnel that are provided.”
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