Mercedes Quiroga busily verified people as they arrived at the High Springs Civic Center to cast their vote during the governor election in 2018. Two years later, Quiroga is 66 and reluctant to work as a poll worker for the 2020 election.
The prospect of small, crowded rooms following the spread of COVID-19 has made her unwilling to resume the position. Efforts by the county to keep voters from the polls suggest she is not alone in her concern.
With the pandemic in full swing, the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections and the League of Women Voters of Alachua County are planning ways to keep voters and poll workers safe during Florida’s upcoming primary and general elections on Aug. 18 and Nov. 3.
Alachua County Supervisor of Elections spokesperson TJ Pyche said people should sign up for vote-by-mail and begin familiarizing themselves with how to send their vote. By voting by mail, people can avoid crowded polling locations.
If voters choose instead to vote in person, Pyche said the county is working to implement preventive measures to keep them safe. Poll workers will be equipped with personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Having these protective measures during elections could lead to additional costs for the county, Pyche said, but it’s supportive of spending more to make sure people are safe.
On April 7, Florida Supervisors of Elections sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis on behalf of Florida’s 67 county election officials asking the governor for more time to process mail ballots and additional days of early voting. The letter also asked DeSantis to create super voting sites, which are early voting sites open through election day, Pyche said.
DeSantis issued an executive order on Wednesday about the primary and general elections, 10 weeks after the original letter was sent.
In the order, he encouraged state workers to work as poll workers, social distancing and cleaning procedures. He also encouraged K-12 schools to close on elections days to use as polling locations.
Craig Latimer, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, wrote in a statement on Wednesday that the accommodations Governor DeSantis offered are substantially different from the one recommendations submitted in April.
“It comes at a point when many of the state’s Supervisors of Elections have already solidified their plans for the August Primary Election,” Latimer said.
Pyche said there will not be any major changes made in Alachua County because of the executive order.
“Given the substance of the executive order, we’re going to continue to plan for August and November prior to that order using some of the items, such as the opportunity to recruit state workers to work Election Day to our advantage,” Pyche said.
The pandemic is also affecting how some organizations encourage people to vote and inform them about the candidates.
The League of Women Voters of Alachua County, an organization dedicated to voter education and advocacy, will not be participating in face-to-face voter registration events or candidate forums, according to Debra Shimon, a co-chair of voter services for the League.
The forums, usually open to the public before any election, allow people to ask candidates questions.
“We've always done in-person candidate forums,” Shimon said. “Now we have to think about: Is that even safe to do for ourselves, and our volunteers, and the staff of the places we hold them at, and of course, for the candidates and audience?”
Shimon said they are exploring virtual options for future candidate forums.
Diane Dimperio, another co-chair of voter services, said a lot of people don't know they can request a vote-by-mail ballot in Florida.
“That actually started some years ago because we were expecting a hurricane, and we knew that it may interfere with voting,” Dimperio said. “They changed the law in Florida and said anybody can vote by mail for any reason, any time or all the time. So now we’re trying to encourage people to vote, to request a ballot.”
Dimperio said voters who do not trust mailing in their ballots can drop off the envelope at a voting site.
Still, some Alachua County residents have security concerns about mail-in voting. Like Ethan Hood, a 21-year-old UF marketing senior, who said he has concerns over Florida’s history of miscounting votes.
“I feel like mail-in voting, it’ll be easier to tamper with,” he said.
This year would be Hood’s first time voting in a presidential election, and he said he would like it to be in person.
“Mail is just more detached,” he said. “I’d like to get my experience out of it, like going to the actual polling place and going into the little booths and checking the boxes.”
He feels that voting in person would be safe as long as polling centers take appropriate precautions like requiring masks and sanitizing after every person votes. But, he said, those precautions would take a lot of work.
August Funston, a 20-year-old music performance junior at UF, is planning to vote in the primary and general elections later this year.
He said he wants to vote in person, but he will vote by mail if social distancing measures are still recommended.
He said he thinks mail-in voting is perfectly legitimate.
“Concerns about voter fraud are mostly outlier examples of bad people, but not everyone’s going to do that for the most part,” Funston said.
Pyche said there are a lot of procedures and processes to make sure that voters’ concerns do not become a reality. Only people who request mail-in ballots can receive those ballots and the signature that the voter signs is compared to the signature that’s in their voting record, he said.
Voters can track their mail ballots online, and ballot counting is done in person. The ballot envelopes are only made available for inspection 30 minutes before every meeting when ballots are counted.
The deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot for Florida residents is 5 p.m. on Aug. 8 before the Aug. 18 primary election.
Alachua County residents can request their ballot through the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections website, in person at 515 N. Main St., or by phone at 352-374-5252.
Early primary voting in Alachua County will be from Aug. 3 through Aug. 15. Polling locations will be open for early voting from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and can be found on the Supervisor of Elections website.