A host of progressive activist groups have filed a lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sec. of State Laurel Lee, demanding emergency accommodations to the state’s election procedures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

That follows a letter sent two weeks ago by all 67 supervisors of election calling on the governor the option to extend early voting to three weeks from two and continue early voting through Election Day.

Florida’s March 17 presidential primary took place four days after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in response to the novel coronavirus, and a day before the White House issued guidance for the public to avoid all social groupings of 10 or more people. Election Day turnout from the previous two presidential primary elections was down from the past two presidential primary elections in Florida (though some attributed that decline to the fact that Trump was running unopposed and Joe Biden was leading Bernie Sanders by approximately 40 percentage points).

The suit was filed Monday night by Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, Advancement Project National Office, Demos and LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

Among the measures those groups are calling for include: 

·     Extend the deadline to register to vote.

·     Extend the days, hours and locations for early voting in each county. 

·     Mail a vote-by-mail ballot to all registered voters in accordance with their preferred language.

·     Simplify the online voter registration process by modifying requirements and providing registrants with notice of application errors.

·     Have the state pay postage costs for voter registration or mail-in ballots.

·     Provide more drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots.

“We filed a lawsuit around the March 17 Florida preference primary, because we saw people had no way to request a vote-by-mail ballot once the deadline passed,” says Andrea Mercado, the executive director of the New Florida Majority. “People had to choose between exercising their right to vote, and possibly putting themselves at risk and their loved ones at risk.”

Mercado notes that she voted in Broward County, where two poll workers who worked Election Day tested positive for COVID-19. 

While neither the state supervisor of elections nor the groups suing the state are calling for an exclusive vote-by-mail vote in November, they all recognize that more voters than ever who want to participate in the electoral process are more likely to request a vote-by-mail ballot because of health concerns.

Broward County Supervisor of Elections Wendy Link said last week that she would send vote-by-mail ballots to every registered voter in the state who hadn’t already requested one.  

The lawsuit filed this week also calls for every registered voter get a vote-by-mail ballot, even if they ultimately will decide to vote early or on Election Day.

“If you’re not registered vote and you’re eligible, the state should mail you a voter-registration form,” Mercado says. “So many people register to vote at the DMV, or at schools that are now closed. They’re shuttered. And in these times, in these unchartered waters that we’re in, we really need the state of Florida to make it as easy as possible to participate in our democracy.”

Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer says because of the timing, it’s not really possible to make the election strictly vote-by-mail. But he’s hoping the state will be flexible in allowing supervisors of election to expand the early voting calendar by an additional week to allow for social distancing purposes.

“You’ve got to remember that I’ve got X amount of poll workers inside an early voting site, and now I’m going to bring in voters, too, and we want to keep that number in that ten (people) range if we can,” he says. “And then by the time we put privacy booths six feet apart in all areas and check-in stations and have lines, it’s going to be a longer process, so we just want the extra time to move these people through so they don’t have to stand in line like they did in Wisconsin.”

In Milwaukee, public health officials identified seven people this week appear to have contracted the coronavirus through activities related to the April 7 presidential primary in Wisconsin. 

Election officials also are concerned about how many poll workers they will have to staff precincts for the August primary and November general election.

Latimer said his office recruited more than 2,000 people to work during last month’s primary in Hillsborough County. He says about 500 of those failed to show up for a training session, and on Election Day they had 346 no-shows, a figure that was matched and in some cases superseded in other parts of the state.

Latimer says that the request that the SOE’s are making in terms of having more flexibility in this year’s elections aren’t much different than the order he granted to counties in the Panhandle following Hurricane Michael right before the 2018 midterm elections.

A spokesman for the Florida Department of State says they received the letter from the supervisors of elections.

“The Secretary and others within the Department of State have discussed the letter and the proposed accommodations with the Supervisors of Elections and we continue to work the Supervisors to prepare for any issues that have arisen – and may arise – for the August and November elections,” said spokesman Mark Ard in an email to Spectrum Bay News 9. “We appreciate the input from Supervisors of Elections and welcome the opportunity to address the needs of their counties and voters. Together, we can ensure the facilitation of safe, successful and fair elections in Florida.”

“It is still too early to know exactly how COVID-19 will impact the August or November elections in Florida,” said Republican Party of Florida chairman Joe Gruters earlier this month. “It is also important to note that Florida allows all eligible persons to vote by mail for any reason at all. In the meantime, the RPOF continues to encourage voters to vote by mail through our paid and volunteer efforts.”