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County may cut polling places in favor of super voting centers

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of December 3, 2020)

Fewer than 16,000 county residents cast ballots in person this past Election Day, while nearly 46,000 opted to vote by mail – but that’s not the reason you might find fewer polling places here in the future.

“The more likely reason would be the success of the super voting centers in the Panhandle,” county Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan said. “We’ll just have to wait and see if the Legislature wants to do it in other places around the state.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis authorized super voting sites in Bay and Gulf counties last year in the wake of Hurricane Michael, which devastated the Florida Panhandle in 2018 and damaged traditional polling places to a point where they were unsafe for public use.

Under the governor’s executive order, the counties’ registered voters were able to cast ballots at any of the super voting sites, regardless of their home precinct, just as they did during the early voting period.

“To add super voting centers in the other counties, the Legislature would have to approve it, and the state supervisor of elections is pushing to see if they’ll go for it,” Swan said. “They tend to make changes in non-election years, so it could come up in 2021.

“It probably would save money.”

Swan said she’d need “maybe five super centers” to accommodate the county’s voters. The Panhandle counties utilized a variety of buildings, including conference centers, community centers, hotels, churches and fire stations.

In the meantime, Swan said she expects voting by mail, which increased dramatically this year because of the pandemic, to remain popular.

“When residents received their vote-by-mail certificates, there was a box they could check to tell us they want to continue to vote by mail,” Swan said. “So, at least for the next couple of years, we’re going to get a lot of them.”

If the Legislature doesn’t embrace the super-voting-site concept for the entire state, Swan said it’s too soon to know if there will be a change in the number of polling places in the county due to fewer people voting in person.

“We just had the census and, even with so many people choosing to vote by mail, we have to take into account how fast the county is growing,” Swan said. “The Legislature will also do redistricting in 2021, and that could change things.

Swan said she doubled her staff to keep up with the surge in vote-by-mail ballots, which she called “a lot more labor intensive” to process. Most of the increased costs were offset by federal CARES Act funds the county allocated to her office.