By John Haughey | The Center Square
Early voting for the Aug. 18 primary officially begins Saturday in Florida, but at least a dozen counties opened voting booths Monday and dozens more will do so throughout the week to make in-person voting safer by reducing Election Day lines.
Early voting for the state primary elections and for a host of local elections began Monday in Hillsborough, Leon, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Palm Beach, Orange, Osceola and Polk counties, among others.
Mail-in voting also is underway, with elections officials reporting a strong response despite continued criticism by President Donald Trump of universal mail-in voting, which often is confused with Florida’s expanded mail-in voting laws.
Trump tried to differentiate his opposition to universal mail-in voting and his support for Florida’s mail-in system Tuesday by declaring it is "safe and secure."
"Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True," Trump tweeted. "Florida's Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!"
The Aug. 18 primary is regarded as a key test for the Nov. 3 general election, when alternate voting opportunities are expected to play a key role. State and local officials are monitoring closely whether systems can handle an anticipated massive influx of mail-in votes as pandemic fears make voting in person a scary proposition for some.
By Florida law, statewide early voting periods must start the 10th day before the election and end three days before the election. However, elections supervisors can offer early voting beginning 15 days out and extend it until two days before the election. Many have chosen to do so.
In Miami-Dade County, more than 3,100 of about 1.49 million registered voters cast ballots Monday, according to the Florida Division of Elections (DOE), which said about 2,800 residents voted on the first day of early voting in the November 2018 general election.
In Orange County, which began early voting at 18 sites Monday, no lines were reported. More than 1,600 people voted by Monday evening, including 957 Democrats, 525 Republicans and 126 independents, county officials told The Orlando Sentinel.
Among the safeguards are “line coordinators,” who coordinate the flow of voters through the process, sanitizing socially distanced booths after each use, along with Plexiglas shields and disposable stylus pens available to every voter.
Orange County officials and those in other counties will not turn away voters without masks but will have them on hand and require people to don one to enter voting sites.
County election supervisors sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, requesting to expand early voting to 22 days before the primary and general elections.
DeSantis did not grant the extension but did allow supervisors to start counting mail-in ballots earlier.
Elections supervisors anticipate as many as half of Florida’s near 12 million registered voters will cast their ballots via the mail, perhaps even more depending on the COVID-19 pandemic. That anticipated flood of mail-in ballots already has begun.
As of Monday morning, nearly 100,000 Miami-Dade voters had returned mail ballots, according to DOE.
In Orange County, more than 41,000 voters had voted by mail as of Monday. More than 142,000 Orange County voters requested mail-in ballots for the primary, with many more expected to do so for November’s election.
Seminole County elections officials reported Monday more than 15,000 mail-in ballots have been received out of the more than 80,000 mailed.
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