JACKSONVILLE, FLa. – Tens of thousands of voters anxious to cast ballots in person were lined up as early voting opened Monday across Florida, but the lines moved quickly and no serious problems were reported in the key swing state.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, millions of Florida voters trying to avoid long lines on Election Day are expected to vote during two weeks of early voting.
Photos showed lines outside early voting sites in Duval, St. Johns, Clay and Nassau counties. By 7:50 p.m., county websites showed 28,476 early votes cast in Duval County, 9,503 in St. Johns County, 7,959 in Clay County and 3,923 in Nassau County.
“I planned early on to bring my family down to make sure we all voted,” voter Altemese Sykes said. “I was adamant that on the first day, we’re going down to vote.”
Each site has a dedicated person to wipe down equipment, and the voting stations are spaced out more than usual, but masks are optional.
“We can’t require a voter to wear a mask and we can’t require a voter to social distance. That’s called voter suppression,” Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan said.
The early voting sites in Jacksonville are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Monday through Sunday, Nov. 1. Dozens more sites opened in neighboring counties on Monday, but most end on Halloween. A few counties don’t open in-person sites until later in the week.
“I actually would vote on Election Day but this election is the most important in my lifetime so I’m going to make sure my vote counts and vote now,” Christian George said Monday.
Duvalelections.org showed wait times at several sites during the morning, but News4Jax found they weren’t always accurate.
“That is ridiculous. There was hardly a wait at all,” one voter at the Southeast Regional Library said. “They have like 17 booths for people to go in. They move them really quick and in between each voter, they wipe everything down, even the pens. Very safe and organized.”
Another voter said there were 30-40 people in line, but she got through in 10 minutes.
“Honestly, I was surprised how quickly it went," she said.
At the Duval County Supervisor of Elections Office in downtown Jacksonville, the average wait time was between 15 and 40 minutes depending on what time voters showed up.
“The line, it took us 40 minutes to vote,” said voter Aaron Glick.
Vicki Allen, who also at that site, said: “This is the largest crowd I’ve ever seen in all the years I’ve voted, and I’m in my 50s.”
“It’s so many people -- I mean, senior citizens, African Americans and others. It is such a big turnout," voter Joyce Young told News4Jax at that site.
But many voters said it was worth the wait.
“I was proud to stand in line for 15 minutes. I really was,” Young said. “It feels good because this is a very intense election, and I’m glad I’m a part of it."
Hogan said the wait times displayed on the website are entered manually and they will work on making them more accurate.
Hogan said typically the busiest days at early voting locations are Monday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. To reduce your wait time, he suggests casting your ballot on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.
At one of Duval County’s two newest early voting sites -- the Prime Osborn Convention Center -- there was no line. That site had come under fire because it replaced an early voting location at Edward Water College, which served a minority community in Northwest Jacksonville.
“We are not disappointed yet,” Hogan said. “Everything that comes out new typically takes a little bit of time for people to get used to it. It’s going to be fine.”
Anticipating the demand, St. Johns County opened more early voting sites this year.
“We have 10 locations in St. Johns County for early voting,” St. Johns Supervisor of Elections Vicky Oaks said. “We normally have seven early voting sites, so that is great for St. Johns County that we have ten locations that are going to be open for 13 days and they are all fully staffed.”
Mail-in ballot boxes
Fifteen days before Election Day, more than 2.5 million vote-by-mail ballots have been received at elections offices around the state -- nearly the total number who voted by may in the 2016 election.
As of Monday evening, the Duval County elections' office had already received more than 78,800 mail-in ballots. Last week, Hogan said that fewer than 1,000 of them have been flagged and the voters have been contacted about an issue with their ballot. Of those, more than 150 had been corrected and returned to his office.
Boxes specially designed for mail-in ballots will be placed at all early voting locations.
In Duval County, five of those early voting locations will offer drive-through service as well, Hogan said. The boxes will be clearly marked outside the voting location or inside, depending on the site.
“There will be two folks guarding every box, and they are plastered with stickers," Hogan said. "You’ll know them when you see them.”
Mail-in ballot drop boxes will only be available during early voting. After that time, you can either mail your ballot or drop it off at the Supervisor of Elections Office in downtown Jacksonville.
Nancy Wood used one of the boxes Monday because," I didn’t trust going back (to) any other method other than me putting it in the box."
Voter Cynthia McNair also dropped her mail-in ballot into the receptacle at the downtown Supervisor of Elections Office.
“You never know if the ballot will get turned in or not, so preferred to bring it down to make sure it got turned in,” McNair said
If you registered to vote by mail but would like to vote in person, you can.
“A lot of folks have asked for mail ballots just as an emergency,” Hogan said. “We’ve always allowed a person that has received a mail ballot to vote early or on Election Day. Our system is smart. It’ll only count the first ballot in."
In addition, Hogan said, through a partnership with the Jacksonville Jaguars, voters will be able to drop off their mail-in ballot at Lot J during the last week of early voting, which is the week of Oct. 26.
Counting the vote
With all indications indicating record turnout and a close election, Hogan said his staff is doing everything they can to ensure that the ballot-counting process will go smoothly, but they are also preparing for what will happen when the votes are counted and ballots are potentially contested.
Remember the infamous hanging chad debacle in 2000 when rooms were crowded with people watching and questioning the outcome? With the ongoing pandemic, the elections office wants to avoid a similar situation and has already sent a list of rules to party officials about Canvassing Board observers.
The letter said all observers will be required to wear a face mask or face shield and will have their temperatures taken before they enter the room. The seats will be arranged for social distancing, which means space is limited.
“If more people wish to observe than seats are available, the observers may be asked to observe for a limited time to accommodate all persons desiring to observe,” the letter said. “Designated party/candidate representatives shall have priority seating; however they may be limited to one per party/candidate if there are more observers than space is available.”
To read the full list of restrictions, click here.