Election leaders seeking changes for voter safety

  • Election officials statewide were included in a note to the governor.
    Election officials statewide were included in a note to the governor.

County elections supervisors throughout the state want Gov. Ron DeSantis to expand vote-by-mail and early voting as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elections officials in Putnam County are looking to also take additional precautions to ensure voter safety and hoping coronavirus won’t discourage residents from exercising their right to vote.

“If (the pandemic) continues going the way it’s going, there’s definitely going to be some people who aren’t going to want to risk voting,” Putnam County Supervisor of Elections Charles Overturf III said. “It’s sad, but I don’t want somebody doing something they don’t feel is safe, especially an older resident.”

Overturf is one of the state’s 67 elections supervisors who were represented in a letter sent to DeSantis on April 7 asking him for an executive order that extends early voting until Election Day, which is Nov. 3.

Florida Supervisors of Elections President Tammy Jones said these measures would help elections run smoothly despite an anticipated “significant statewide shortage” of poll workers this year.

“As counties are preparing and making staffing and logistics decisions now, the flexibility and authority provided as soon as possible would be of great benefit,” Jones said.

According to Overturf, about 10,000 Putnam residents voted in March’s Presidential Preference Primary. The primary occurred only four days after President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency due to COVID-19.

Despite the novel coronavirus making national news, Overturf said the pandemic didn’t have a significant effect on voter turnout in Putnam County. He also said he had an adequate amount of poll workers and polling locations.

However, the coronavirus had an impact in other counties.

Several polling places became unavailable and many poll workers throughout the state canceled their shifts, Jones said.

“… Supervisors of elections encountered significant challenges with polling places becoming unavailable, difficulty acquiring hand sanitizer and other supplies, and substantial numbers of poll workers deciding not to work, many at the last minute,” Jones said.

Putnam County has 21 polling locations and 39 precincts. Overturf said the county may combine precincts and reduce the number of polling locations if DeSantis signs an executive order allowing Putnam to do so.

Some polling places in the county may not participate in elections this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Libraries and college campuses in Putnam County are closed until further notice.

However, St. Johns River State College still plans to be a polling location later this year.

“If traditional polling (and) voting locations are allowed, then yes,” SJR State President Joe Pickens said when asked if the college would continue to be a polling site.

Overturf said there are 49,000 registered voters in Putnam County, which is the most registered voters in the county’s history. Taking into account coronavirus concerns, Overturf said, he still expects about 36,000 people to participate in November’s presidential election.

“That’s a lot of people who have the right to vote and I hope that they do,” he said.

Overturf said about 80% of Putnam County voters go to the polls as opposed to voting by mail.

Jones said Florida is not equipped to handle only mail voting for this year’s elections and expects “some level” of in-person voting to continue as a result.

“There are some counties in South Florida that have 50% or 60% of their votes be done by mail,” Overturf said. “Putnam has never been like that, and a lot of counties around us are not.”

However, the Putnam County Elections Office is prepared if more people want to vote from the safety of their homes, Overturf said.

“People are welcome to vote by mail,” he said. “All they have to do is let us know (what) they want to.”

For more information, call 329-0224 or visit soe.putnam-fl.com.