CLAY COUNTY – The question I have been asked most often in the last week is “How can Florida, and specifically Clay County, complete the ballot counting so quickly when other states cannot?” In my opinion, the keys to Florida’s success are the three Ps: plan, prepare and perform.
Plan: Florida started planning with the Legislature, enacting Florida Law 2017-045, which gave voters the ability to cure their signature when the signature differed, or when they failed to sign the voter’s certificate, on their Vote by Mail ballot.
By providing an affidavit, attesting that they requested and returned the VBM ballot, and providing a photo Tier 1 identification or other Tier 2 document, voters would be allowed to correct those errors. The planning continued with the enactment of Florida Law 2019-162, which included a number of enhancements to further equip voters and elections professionals with the tools necessary to bring timely and accurate results to all Floridians.
First, the Legislature recognized that Florida voters could not in some circumstances, receive their ballot when requested as few as six days prior to the election; so that deadline was pushed back to 10 days. This was to better ensure the voter received the ballot in enough time to return it to the Elections Office. Next, the date range the Elections Office had to begin to mail domestic VBM ballots was pushed back to 40-33 days, from 35-28 days, to allow more time for voters to return their ballot for processing.
Another beneficial change was the county Canvassing Board could begin processing the VBM ballots at 7 a.m. on the 22nd day prior to the election; compared with many states that do not begin canvassing the VBM ballots until Election Day.
Finally, while Clay County voters have enjoyed secure drop boxes for a number of years, the Legislature mandated that drop boxes be provided at all Early Voting sites and Supervisors of Elections offices statewide.
Prepare: Armed with these new tools, election professionals began to prepare protocols and procedures to train thousands of Election Workers across the state. In Clay County, where we have the most tenured, qualified Elections Workers of any county, COVID-19 took its toll on the number of Election Workers returning to our team. So, the call went out to the community: business leaders, individuals, and our county partners.
Howard Wannamaker, County Manager, and his team, asked for volunteer county employees to fill these positions and ready themselves for the big day with four-five hours of hands-on, scenario-based training offered by Thunder Nkere and Stacey Whitehead of the Elections Office.
With our team in place, we earnestly started to source the Personal Protective Equipment necessary to ensure the safety and good health of the voters and Election Workers alike.
Through the efforts of John Ward, Clay County Emergency Management Director and his team, we were able to amass 50,000 masks. Through retailers we were able to obtain 4,000 pairs of gloves and disinfecting wipes.
Clay County’s own Dave and Zette Fleming, owners and operators of Black Creek Distilleries, immediately began to convert their processing to provide more than 45 gallons of 80% alcohol hand sanitizer needed for the election season.
Holly DePaul, Election Services Manager, and her team, developed a fool-proof process to deploy much more equipment than needed; starting with the Presidential Preference Primary and increasing with each election, up to, and including, the General Election. This measured growth was done in a way to try and anticipate indirect challenges, such as staffing and facility challenges, that became apparent with the additional equipment.
Perform: With the game plan for success in place, we were ready to execute. Lisa Hogan, Voter Services Manager, and her team, began the process to ensure that the staggering 48,000 petitions, 36,000 new or updated voter registrations, and the nearly 35,000 VBM ballots, would be processed accurately, and in a timely manner, for these elections. The Election Workers and countless volunteers, from our community and county partners, performed tirelessly. Without them, the election could not go on.
With VBM, 156 hours of Early Voting, and the largest number of voters (125,021 ballots cast) who turned out for an election, I would qualify the 2020 General Election as a resounding success; and the bulk of that success is owed to the voters of Clay County.
Despite a national pandemic, changing our daily routines in many cases, the voters heeded our advice and planned for the election. They prepared, by knowing where and when to vote, and armed themselves with their Sample Ballot. And citizens performed, by casting their vote in this historic election.
Job well done!