The coronavirus pandemic is creating unprecedented challenges in Florida. COVID-19 has infected nearly 360,000 and taken the lives of more than 5,000 Floridians. Our state and local resources are being stretched as we continue to grapple with the effects of the virus.
Experts indicate we’re still in the first wave of the outbreak, and we may see another deadly surge of cases in the fall — just in time for the November election.
To protect the health of Floridians and the security of our elections, we need to prepare now. But Florida can’t do it alone. In the next relief package, Congress has an opportunity to step up and send more resources to our election officials so they have the flexibility to respond to Florida’s specific needs. This will give our citizens safe and secure voting options to vote by mail or in person.
We are fortunate that mail voting is already available to all eligible Florida voters. We’ve gotten accustomed to it too — about one-third of state voters have cast a mail ballot in recent elections, and the number of requests has skyrocketed this year. This commonsense option will reduce crowds and congestion on Election Day. But responding to these requests, mailing and processing ballots, will require more resources and staffing than we’ve needed before.
Ensuring the validity of these ballots will also require additional funding. Our state has a proven and secure system for processing mail ballots, but election officials will need to scale up to meet the increased demand. When it comes to protecting the integrity of our elections, we need to be all-in.
Of course, since Florida also has robust in-person voting, there is additional strain from the realities of the pandemic. Poll workers, many of whom are over the age of 60 and at high risk, quit en masse before the March presidential primary. Other states have seen similar staffing shortages. And many traditional polling locations such as schools and senior centers are unavailable.
Recruiting, compensating and training new poll workers sufficiently along with leasing new polling places will all incur additional costs.
And the demands won’t stop there. Once officials have secured polling locations, they will also need to purchase protective equipment such as masks and gloves as well as cleaning supplies and disinfectants.
Eliminating polling locations simply isn’t an option. Voting by mail isn’t the best choice for everyone, so we need investments to guarantee that our long history of voting in person remains intact.
Additionally, to reduce crowds on Election Day, Florida needs to expand early voting as much as possible. These added hours are crucial, especially on nights and weekends, but they will require more staff time and funds to ensure polls can be open.
The way voters decide to cast their ballot may change if COVID-19 surges in a second wave this fall. If we eliminate polling locations or fail to expand the time available to vote early, more people will have to crowd into those that are left. Overcrowding would make physical distancing difficult and restrict the ability of poll workers to keep polls sufficiently sanitary. For rural Floridians, fewer polling places could also make voting inaccessible.
Every decision state leadership makes during this time must consider both our public health and the potential long-term implications. It’s not an easy balance. As the pandemic rages on, many thousands are out of work and businesses have been forced to shutter. Schools are grappling with the challenges of educating our children while keeping students and staff safe. Elections are no exception.
Congress committed $400 million to securing our elections through the CARES Act earlier this year. But it is clear Florida needs additional federal support. In fact, the R Street Institute released a study that found that the funds provided by the CARES Act only covered a small fraction — from 10 percent to 18 percent in the states studied — of what is required.
We must ensure that our state election administrators get the necessary support to prepare for safe and secure voting by mail and early voting this fall. We must also maintain our strong history of precinct-based voting without consolidating polling places.
Congress needs to act now to provide desperately needed funding so that election officials can address Florida’s specific needs before it’s too late.
Carlos Curbelo is a Republican who represented Florida’s 26th District from 2015 to 2019.