How Florida, known for election meltdowns, nailed mail-in voting

Florida has historically been the site of the country's most contentious, drawn-out elections. But its swift primaries just set a new standard for voting during the pandemic. Other states are taking note of Florida's model as Election Day approaches.

Scott Keller/Tampa Bay Times/AP
Poll worker Jeanne Coffey monitors the front door at the Coliseum Ball Room during the state's primary election, Aug. 18, 2020, in St. Petersburg, Florida. State law allowed mail ballots to be processed weeks before Tuesday's election, making the count more efficient.

The votes were swiftly counted, winners were declared, and by about 10 o'clock that night most of the results of Tuesday's primary election – one with large numbers of mailed votes – were known in Florida.

Yes, Florida. The poster child for election meltdowns, where the recount of the 2000 presidential race dragged on for 33 days until it was resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Where, in 2018, the outcomes of the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races were up in the air well after Election Day.

Despite its reputation for confusing ballot design and controversial election administration, Florida was, in some respects, a model for how to conduct an election and count the vote in a pandemic-era election. That model is getting more attention as many states are considering adjusting their voting rules to prepare for a surge of mail-in votes and avoid a slow vote count.

One key to Florida's performance Tuesday was state law allowing election officials to begin processing mail ballots weeks before Election Day. That means signature verification can be done in advance, speeding up the count and leading to faster results.

Roughly 1 million more people voted by mail compared to four years ago, with about three-quarters of the nearly 3 million votes cast remotely.

"Florida's going to be in such a great position moving forward here into the general because this isn't new to us. We've been doing this for a while," said Craig Latimer, Hillsborough County supervisor of elections, who added that one-quarter of his county's mail voters cast ballots in person in 2018.

In contrast, in a trio of key Rust Belt states that may decide the election – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – Republicans have resisted loosening rules that limit the processing of ballots to Election Day or the day before. Election officials in those states warn that may make it impossible to determine who won the presidential race there for several days.

In Michigan, a bill to allow earlier processing of mail ballots remains stalled in the GOP-controlled state Senate. "If the Legislature doesn't act, we're going to really be reaching the limits of what our current system can provide both with people and machines," said Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat and the secretary of state in Michigan.

A prolonged count and unsettled presidential election could create days or weeks of chaos. Democrats are particularly worried about how President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly said that he could only lose an election through fraud, might behave in that time.

There's already been a mixed bag of results of states that had to hurriedly shift to a mail-voting system during the primaries since the novel coronavirus became widespread in March.

Some, like Georgia and Wisconsin, were marred by huge lines at the few polling places that could remain open and chaos in the mail balloting system. Others, like in Nebraska and Pennsylvania, went comparatively smoothly.

Still, voting advocates warn it's too early for Florida to celebrate. It's still possible, they say, for Florida's election system to melt down under the strain of the much-larger turnout of the presidential election in November.

"Florida still has work to do as we head into the general election," said Michael Pernick, a voting rights attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

There also weren't many nail-biters on Tuesday night. One reason Florida elections are so notoriously drawn out is the state is so evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, leading to many close elections – especially presidential ones. In situations where every vote counts, the best mail-balloting system in the world may not prevent drawn out tallies that extend the uncertainty of the election.

In other words, don't take Florida for granted in November.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee and David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this report.

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