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Fla. Election Officials Say Focus Is 'Getting This Right'

=In this November 2018 file photo, Duval County Supervisor of Elections staff are pictured doing a manual recount.
In this November 2018 file photo, Duval County Supervisor of Elections staff are pictured doing a manual recount.

With an unprecedented number of voters opting to cast ballots by mail in Florida and throughout the nation, elections officials are urging patience in what some experts say should be viewed as “election season” rather than Election Day.

“Our focus is on getting this right, not getting it done as fast as possible to satisfy all the voices out there clamoring for instantaneous results. You can’t have perfection instantaneously,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley told reporters Monday during a video conference hosted by Common Cause Florida.

Earley said it’s important not to completely rely on quick turnout results available on Supervisor of Elections’ websites, as they might not account for some votes and can change. 

Supervisors and public-interest groups are trying to spread the word that it could take days for elections officials to get a final tally in the battle between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Related: More Local, State And National Election News

The push to educate the public about the time involved in the tabulation of mail-in ballots comes as the Republican president has repeatedly demanded that a winner of the Nov. 3 election be determined by the end of Election Day.

“Now we’re counting on the federal court system to make it so that we can actually have an evening where we know who wins. Not where the votes are going to be counted a week later or two weeks later,” Trump told supporters at a North Carolina rally last month.

In Florida, elections officials are allowed to begin processing mail-in ballots weeks before Election Day. But in some states, the ballots can’t be counted until the day of the election.

About a third of Americans expect the results of next month’s presidential contest to be known on Election Day, and about half of voters surveyed expect the outcome to be finalized within three days of the election, pollster Ben Winston of Strategies 360 said during Monday’s video conference.

“Voters have not gotten the memo here that things could be different,” Winston said.

Voters anticipate “just general chaos in the aftermath of the election,” and “some are even worried the election will cause an irreparable rift in the country, with the losing party refusing to accept the outcome,” Winston said.

Winston also said that research from the firm suggests people think counting ballots is a quick and easy process, with half of voters believing counting will be done within three days, and a third thinking it will be complete within 24 hours.

“You can trust your local officials to count things properly,” said Winston. “There may be isolated incidents or isolated problems that should absolutely be reported and fixed. But just be very careful in thinking about how voters are going to react to information if the tone of the coverage is focused more on those problems then on the overwhelming majority of things that are going correctly.” 

This year’s exponential number of mail-in ballots - including in some states that have initiated vote-by-mail procedures for the first time in response to the COVID-19 pandemic - could result in an extended ballot-counting period, the experts said.

Uncertainty about the outcome of the Trump-Biden race by the end of Election Day is OK, they emphasized.

“We need to give all of us a little bit of time. We want to ensure that everything we produce, everything that we publish is 100 percent accurate. We do not have the opportunity to be wrong,” Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox said.

“We can kind of explain them [results] as traffic jams,” Wilcox said. “A traffic jam up in Lafayette County means two cars have hit the same four-way stop at same time. It takes you an extra three seconds to get home on election night. A traffic jam here is going to cost me an extra eight or 10 minutes. A traffic jam down in Miami-Dade is a couple of hours. So we all run by the same rules that a vote by mail must be returned by 7pm, but it's still processing through that traffic to get through there.” 

The deadline for elections offices to submit unofficial results for the first time is the Saturday after the election, November 7. The official results due to the state are on November 15, and federal results are due two days later. 

After Election Day, officials have to scrutinize provisional ballots, ballots of voters who had an opportunity to “cure” mismatched signatures, and verify precinct-level results.

“It’s a long, intensive process,” Earley said. “Tabulation is not a horse race. It’s not suddenly, this person’s ahead and this person’s behind and it switches and, OK, there’s another lead change. Nothing’s changed. … The results are all in. We just have to figure out what they are.”

While the state has a long history of voting by mail, a record number of Floridians have requested mail-in ballots for this year’s elections. As of Monday afternoon, about 1.7 million people had already voted by mail, with Democrats outdistancing Republicans. Also, about 3.9 million ballots had been provided to voters but had not been returned.

County supervisors are encouraging Floridians to vote by mail or to cast ballots at early-voting sites, which will start opening next week. Reducing the number of people who vote in person on Election Day will make it easier for officials and voters to comply with social-distancing measures amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But officials likely won’t be requiring voters to don masks when they enter polling precincts.

“I am certainly not going to prevent somebody from coming in who is not wearing a mask. I am a bit concerned about the reverse reaction, where somebody takes offense and tries to help me do my job by forcing a voter to wear a mask. That is not a good situation either,” Earley said.

COVID-19 has intensified pressure on supervisors, while Democrats and Republicans consider Florida’s 29 electoral votes key to a White House victory.

Trump’s campaign is unleashing a cadre of poll watchers, dubbed “Trump’s Army,” to patrol voting sites in battleground states such as Florida. Biden’s campaign --- which has amassed a legal team headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder --- is also enlisting the aid of poll watchers. And third-party groups, including Common Cause, will be engaged in election-protection efforts, too.

Supervisors have been coordinating with local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies to prepare for possible disruptions outside polling precincts.

Earley acknowledged “there’s been a lot of churn in the news” about poll-watcher recruitment, but he added he doesn’t expect problems in Florida.

“Frankly, some of what you see in other states, I don’t think will happen here, knock on wood,” he said. “Florida has very good laws about voter intimidation. We also have a law prohibiting open carry of weapons. Those two things, I think, work to our advantage.”

The Leon County elections chief said he’s more worried that political leaders might fan the flames of potentially explosive situations.

“I’m more concerned about party heads kind of responding to the noise and saying, ‘OK, we need to put these procedures in place to help our supervisor of election out should something happen,’” Earley said. “We don’t need help, OK? More people with high emotion levels is not a recipe for helping a supervisor of elections office. Let us do our jobs.”

In Duval County, early voting begins on October 19, and runs until November 1. Voters will have 19 early-voting locations to choose from across the county.  

Sky Lebron can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at@SkylerLebron.

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.
Former WJCT News reporter