Elections 2020,  National,  State

What Florida Mail-in Ballot Processing Means

As COVID-19 has continued to grip the nation well into election season, many Americans have opted to vote by mail this year. 

Floridians in particular have taken to mail-in voting as Florida continues to grapple with steadily rising COVID-19 cases across the state. In the last week alone, Florida has had an average of 4,111 new cases per day with a total of 812,055 cases since the beginning of the pandemic in March. 

Voting by mail has always been a popular method of voting in Florida compared to other states. With the rapidly rising number of positive COVID-19 cases, the number of mail-in ballots requested this election has increased substantially. Even during the presidential primaries, the process stretching from February to August, voting by mail increased from 30% in 2016 to 46% of the vote in 2020, according to Daniel Smith, a professor at the University of Florida. 

This increase is representative of a pattern we are beginning to see as election day approaches. According to the Wall Street Journal, with a staggering total of 86.9 million early or mail-in votes cast already this year, totals have greatly passed the 58.8 million people who cast early or mail-in ballots in 2016.

Despite the clear increase in demand and support for mail-in voting this election cycle, the process itself has been complicated by a number of factors, perhaps most significantly the postal policy changes that have led to delays in mail delivery. These controversial policy changes were sanctioned by Trump’s newly appointed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy. 

In addition to these slowdowns, there is a growing worry that due to restrictions on when mail-in votes can begin to be counted, many states will have to continue to process the ballots well after election day due to the sheer volume they receive. This means that as opposed to most other recent elections, we may have to wait days before we know the victor. 

Mail-in ballots are processed differently depending on where you live. Some states such as New York and Georgia begin the process upon receiving the ballots. Other states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin can only begin the process on election day. 

Other states are allowed to begin processing at different points prior to election day. According to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections official website, Floridians’ mail-in ballots are collected as they are received at the various election offices around the state. Florida State Statute then dictates that mail-in ballots can be opened and processed starting at 7 a.m. on the 22nd day before the election up until 7 p.m. of election day. 

This means that since Oct. 12 in Florida, election officials have been completing the processing work for mail-in ballots by sorting and opening ballots. 

The Supervisor of Elections office stresses that “the first results released on election day are partial mail-in ballot results. The remainder of the mail-in ballots are processed during election night.”

This statement is applicable to much of the nation. With such an increased demand for mail-in ballots this year, many states, due to their policies regarding when processing can begin, will most likely not know their final election tabulations until days following the election. 

This puts Florida in a unique position. Due to the policy that allows mail-in ballots to be processed well before election day, Florida may very well know who will win its 29 electoral votes both earlier than normal and earlier than a number of other crucial swing states such as Pennsylvania.

This is especially significant as Florida is crucial for a Trump victory this November. Without it, a Biden victory is significantly more likely according to various electoral projections.

Featured image: A voter returns his vote-by-mail ballot. Unmodified photo by Chris Phan used under a Creative Commons license. (https://bit.ly/3jDp38U)

Check out other recent articles from the Florida Political Review here.   

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