Between the effects of COVID-19 and a switch to new election formats in the city and county, the Aug. 18 primary will be a new experience for voters.
On Tuesday, Sarasota voters will cast ballots in the first full election cycle held after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — unless they’re one of the tens of thousands who have already submitted their votes by mail.
This August primary is novel for reasons other than the coronavirus, too. In 2018, Sarasota voters approved two referendums changing the mechanisms for electing city and county commissioners; 2020 is the first time those changes will be in place.
Ahead of election day, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner outlined some key information for those curious about how this year might differ from their typical voting experience.
With less than a week to go until the election, it might be too late to cast your ballot by mail — so consider dropping it off at an election site. To have your vote counted, the Supervisor of Elections office must receive your ballot by 7 p.m. Aug. 18, when polls close on election day. Although it’s not impossible for your vote to arrive on time if you mail it now, Turner said there’s no guarantee, so he recommended dropping it off in-person at designated elections sites.
Voters can drop off their mail ballots at Supervisor of Elections offices and early voting sites from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily through Sunday, Aug. 16. That includes:
- Supervisor of Elections Office, Terrace Building, 2001 Adams Lane;
- North Sarasota Library, 2801 Newtown Blvd.; and
- Sarasota Square Mall, 8201 S. Tamiami Trail.
On Monday, Aug. 17 or Tuesday, Aug. 18, voters will be able to leave their mail ballots in a drop box at Supervisor of Elections offices.
Turner said there’s been a significant increase in requests for vote-by-mail ballots compared to the last August primary in a presidential election cycle. His office has mailed more than 127,000 ballots to Sarasota voters, and as of Tuesday, more than 57,000 have been returned. For comparison’s sake, there was a total of 76,719 ballots cast overall in the 2016 primary. Turner expects more than half of the voters in the primary will submit mail ballots.
Turner said his office is working closely with local postal officials to ensure the process of mailing and receiving ballots moves as quickly as possible.
Even with more volunteers, some polling sites have been consolidated. The presidential primaries in March were held shortly after state and local regulations reacting to COVID-19 began to go into place. Just four days before the election, the Supervisor of Elections announced a series of polling places would be relocated because of pandemic-related concerns.
Those concerns remain in place, and polling places continue to be affected. For the August primary, the Supervisor of Elections has announced 17 polling precincts that have moved from their usual location. A full list is available at SarasotaVotes.com.
One way COVID-19 has made elections work more difficult: Many longtime poll workers are opting not to participate this year, particularly those in higher-risk age groups. Turner said his office has spent the past several months recruiting more than 200 poll workers to ensure adequate staffing.
Masks are recommended when voting but not mandatory. COVID-19 safety protocols will be in place at polling locations. That includes sanitary procedures for pens and voting booths, floor markings to provide 6 feet of distance and signs encouraging voters to follow health guidelines.
Although poll workers will be wearing facial coverings, Turner said his office cannot mandate masks for voters. That applies even in municipalities with mandatory mask orders, including the city of Sarasota and the town of Longboat Key. Beyond concerns about limiting ballot access, Turner said there would be no way to get authorities, such as code compliance workers or police officers, into polling places to make sure the rules are being followed.
“I just don’t have any mechanism to enforce it,” Turner said.
Your ballot looks different than it would have two years ago. The August primary represents the debut of new election systems for both Sarasota County and the city of Sarasota.
A switch to single-member districts in Sarasota County means voters will only be able to vote in one race this year if their district seat is up for election this cycle. Previously, voters countywide would have been able to vote for all three open seats.
City voters will cast ballots in August for the first time after a referendum passed moving elections from spring of odd-numbered years to summer and fall of even-numbered years. The top two vote-getters in districts 2 and 3 will move onto the November election. With only two candidates in District 1, both are moving directly to the general election.
Turner said the new election rules have created more unique ballot styles than there historically have been in August primaries. He said his office began work on ballot design and voter education last year.
It’s never too early to start preparing for the next election. Turner encouraged those planning on voting in the Nov. 3 election to request and return their ballots as soon as possible.
Turner said the earlier mailed votes come in, the easier it is for elections officers to process the ballots to ensure results are available shortly after the polls close. Even in what he anticipates will be a high-turnout general election this November, he thinks about half of those who participate could vote by mail. He’s optimistic about his office’s ability to handle that volume, but he said voters can help the process run more smoothly, too.
“If people are thinking about the general election, now’s the time to be making that request, not Nov. 2,” Turner said. “Earlier is better.”