The coronavirus has fundamentally altered society – at least on a short-term basis – and may even change how Americans vote. In fact, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is currently mulling over a list of recommendations  from Tammy Jones, the President of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, which could drastically change voters’ experiences. While many of the recommendations seem reasonable, one jumps out as potentially pernicious.
Jones’ recommendation would allow voting locations to be consolidated, which will in effect limit the number of polling sites and prospective voters’ options. The motivation behind this proposal is that there could be a shortage of poll workers in the future due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This is a valid, albeit a hypothetical, concern, given that Florida’s primary isn’t until August 18  and the general isn’t until November 3. Nevertheless, reducing access to voting feels antithetical to American ideals, and Jones’ proposal could come with its own health risks.
First and foremost, until the pandemic subsides, more Floridians should cast absentee ballots rather than voting in-person. Absentee voting is a time-tested and convenient manner of performing your civic duty. In fact, Florida’s most powerful resident – President Trump – votes absentee , and Florida deserves plaudits for many of its commonsense absentee voting rules, which mostly makes casting a ballot a cinch for registered voters. What’s more, absentee voting has the added benefit of helping more people keep away from throngs of other voters, which can help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Even so, myriad Floridians will want to vote in-person later this year. While I don’t encourage this behavior, Americans should be allowed to vote in whatever legal manner they choose – despite the risks – and states shouldn’t unreasonably limit access to their right to vote. Rather, voting should be a relatively easy process. After all, an active and informed populace is critical to our republican form of government.
However, voting in-person comes with particular risks during the coronavirus outbreak. Public health officials have repeatedly asked Americans to avoid others, stay home if possible, and socially distance ourselves. Yet this is difficult, if not impossible, in small, crowded polling locations where communicable illnesses, like COVID-19, can spread easily.
Again, a population that relies more on absentee voting would reduce this danger. But if voters are determined to vote in-person, then the number of voting sites shouldn’t be reduced. The more polling locations there are, the fewer number of voters will visit each one – thereby reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19. The limited traffic will make social distancing recommendations more achievable, provide workers more time to disinfect the spaces, and ultimately limit the pandemic’s spread.
Further, polls demonstrate that Floridians prefer more polling locations, and understandably. It makes voting quicker and more convenient as polls are usually near individual voters’ homes, which encourages voter participation.
Still, the Governor and the Florida Supervisors of Elections need to do everything reasonable to ensure that polling locations are safe and that poll workers’ and voters’ health and well-being are a priority. That may include regularly sanitizing voting booths, limiting the number of voters within each location at a given time, ensuring that poll workers have access to personal protective equipment, and perhaps even installing plexiglass dividers to keep workers separate from potentially ill voters. Doing so will make poll workers feel safer and encourage them to station their posts.
Of course, if there are literally no poll workers available for a specific location, then government officials cannot allow it to be opened – a regrettable but understandable reality. However, to close and consolidate locations far in advance would be a mistake. Rather, Florida should recruit a deep bench of poll workers and institute safety protocols so that they have the confidence to preside over the coming elections. This will keep more polling sites open, make voting easier, and reduce the foot traffic at each location. Even though these are uncertain times, officials should do more to encourage Floridians to perform their civic duty, while simultaneously working to promote better health outcomes.
- “list of recommendations”: https://www.myfloridaelections.com/portals/fsase/Documents/Public%20Policy/FSE%20Recommendations%20%20COVID-19.pdf
- “August 18”: https://dos.myflorida.com/elections/for-voters/election-dates/
- “votes absentee”: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/trump-ever-voted-by-mail/