Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday granted limited flexibility under state law to elections supervisors who for months have warned that the coronavirus pandemic will complicate their ability to hold elections in August and November.
In an emergency order that fell well short of granting supervisors the leeway they’d requested months ago, DeSantis gave the state’s 67 local elections officials the ability to begin processing mail ballots earlier than otherwise allowed under Florida law. He also established administrative policies encouraging state employees to work as poll workers in their home counties — potentially alleviating concerns about Election Day staffing shortages — and encouraged officials to create protocols for keeping polling places sanitized and voters socially distanced.
“I find that the strict application of some provisions of the Florida Election Code may prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with the COVID-19 emergency,” DeSantis, a Republican, wrote in the order.
The order addresses urgent calls by the state’s supervisors for flexibility that began in early April, shortly after Florida held its March 17 presidential preference primary. That election, despite relatively low turnout, saw hundreds of poll workers call out on Election Day, and drew voters to the polls in masks and gloves. Afterward, two Broward County poll workers reported that they had tested positive for coronavirus.
But the response came more than 10 weeks after the supervisors urged DeSantis to act “as soon as possible,” and just days before supervisors will send their ballot designs to the printers.
“It comes at a point when many of the state’s Supervisors of Elections have already solidified their plans for the August primary election,” stated a press release issued by a spokeswoman for the Florida Supervisors of Elections association president, Hillsborough County Supervisor Craig Latimer.
The association also noted that DeSantis’ executive order was “substantially different” from its request to DeSantis in early April. Supervisors had also hoped that the governor would allow for extra days of early voting and allow them to establish regional early voting centers on Election Day to alleviate concerns about staffing and skittish landlords unwilling to act as polling places.
DeSantis, instead, gave supervisors the ability to begin opening mail ballots and running them through tabulators earlier than the current 22 days before the election. He offered state employees two full days of administrative leave if they serve as poll workers in their home counties. And he ordered Florida’s director of emergency management to work with county departments to provide protective equipment to elections offices.
DeSantis also encouraged public school boards to shutter schools on Aug. 18 and Nov. 3 in order to accommodate voters, who are often directed to polls based in schools.
“The Supervisors of Elections are currently reviewing the order to determine how it may affect their plans for the Primary and General Elections,” the association stated in its press release.
DeSantis’ order caught supervisors by surprise. Earlier in the day, Latimer expressed frustration during an interview with the Miami Herald about the lack of response from DeSantis’ office to the association’s requests for action. Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White said in an interview that “it’s too late at this point” for any executive order to make a difference in the Aug. 18 primary.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to questions Wednesday about whether they’d responded to supervisors’ requests for an executive order, which Democrats criticized as too little, too late.
“After a month of silence, Governor DeSantis issued an executive order which does far too little to protect votes,” said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa. “If he was serious about providing safe elections he would expand early voting to reduce Election Day lines, provide funding for early vote expansion and present a contingency plan so voters with health issues have more options to vote.”