TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday took steps to help localities prepare for what could be high voter turnout this year, but stopped short of extending early voting or letting counties consolidate polling places in the battleground amid signs that President Donald Trump’s disparagement of mailed ballots could be resonating with Republican voters.
DeSantis called on schools to close during the August primary and November general election to make room for what might be record voter turnout. He also issued an executive order that makes it easier for state employees to work at the polls on Election Day.
DeSantis, a Republican and Trump ally, has been under pressure for months from local election supervisors, who fear the coronavirus pandemic could affect their ability to recruit poll workers and manage balloting in a presidential year.
The announcements were relayed late Wednesday in a letter from Secretary of State Laurel Lee to the state’s 67 election supervisors.
The governor acted after rising pressure from Republican allies, who worry that Florida once again could become a national laughing-stock during the 2020 state and presidential elections.
Citing frightened poll workers and a loss of polling locations, the association that represents state election officials first asked DeSantis in early April to grant them flexibility over early voting, polling locations and the time period for sending out mail-in ballots.
Then Georgia’s primary election was marred by long lines and problems with voting machines, an ominous sign of possible trouble for a state like Florida, which has had its own run of voting calamities, including a chaotic recount that followed the 2000 presidential election.
But the DeSantis administration on Wednesday didn’t act on several suggestions from supervisors, including a request to extend the number of early voting days and consolidate polling places.
Instead, the governor urged local school districts to close on Aug. 18 and Nov. 3 to make it easier to use schools as polling places.
Under the executive order, state workers will be allowed to take administrative leave to serve as poll workers. DeSantis also gave counties the ability to begin counting vote-by-mail ballots slightly before the current starting date. The governor also promised that the state’s emergency management division would provide sanitizers, cleaners and other protective equipment to supervisors.
“It’s very helpful, I’m glad we got a response,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said. “It gives us something to work with.”
Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said the governor’s moves didn’t go far enough.
“It’s disappointing the governor will not honor those who fought and died for us to have the right to vote by ensuring that Floridians do not have to endanger themselves to exercise their right to vote,” Rizzo said in a text message. “If the governor was serious about protecting our health and our vote he would expand the executive order to meet the requests of elections supervisors including expanding early voting to reduce lines on Election Day, funding to promote statewide vote-by-mail enrollment and a clear roadmap to conducting free and safe elections.”
DeSantis had another reason to act: There are growing signs that the Republican voters Trump needs to win in the battleground state could abandon vote-by-mail as their preferred way to cast ballots. For decades, Florida Republicans have had a robust vote-by-mail operation, but Trump has spent months vilifying the process as rife with fraud.
During the 2018 election, voting in the state was split roughly three ways between voting by mail, early voting in person and casting a ballot in person on Election Day.
But a June poll from The Tyson Group, an organization run by GOP pollster Ryan Tyson, shows a growing number of Republican voters plan to vote on Election Day while Democrats say they plan to cast their ballots by mail.
The poll, conducted June 7-11, found that 49 percent of likely Republican voters surveyed plan to vote on Election Day itself, compared to 28 percent of Democrats.
Forty percent of Democrats said they plan to vote by mail, compared to 23 percent of Republicans. The Tyson Group interviewed 1,000 registered voters who are expected to or said they would vote in 2020. The margin of error in the poll is plus or minus 3.1 percent.
The governor’s action also comes as he and Florida election officials fight a lawsuit that was filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida by a group of Florida voters, Democratic super PAC Priorities USA and other Democratic-leaning organizations.
The case seeks to throw out state ballot-return deadlines and laws that limit who is allowed to collect vote-by-mail ballots and return them to local election offices. The lawsuit also wants local election officials to pick up the postage cost for returning ballots, something that 17 counties — including urban locales such as Broward and Orange — were already planning to do.
Many election supervisors, both Democrats and Republicans, have opposed the lawsuit, which will go before a judge in late July.
The Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Florida are also fighting the lawsuit.
DeSantis announced his plan a day after the state Division of Elections told county supervisors it would distribute more than $20.2 million to them on July 1 to take precautions against the coronavirus. Congress provided $400 million in the CARES Act to help states prepare for elections during the outbreak.