Hillsborough County Elections office preps to send out Vote by Mail ballots


Generally, political reporters only engage with local supervisors of elections in advance of an election, Election Day itself, and/or if there are problems at the polls, immediately afterwards.

That hasn't been the case in Florida in recent years, however, what with major election reform bills passed in 2011 and 2013 that Democrats referred to derisively as voter suppression law, as well as several calls by Governor Scott to purge alleged "non-citizens" off the voting rolls.

But ever since Secretary of State Ken Dentzer informed local election supervisors last month that his latest purge would be postponed until 2015, there hasn't been really any reason to find out what your local SOE is up to. Perhaps trying to fill that void, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer called for a photo-op news event this morning, allowing the local media to see how the county prepares and then collects Vote by Mail ballots, the single biggest change in how people now vote in the Sunshine State.
Latimer and some staff members showed reporters how his office prepares to send out a Vote by Mail ballot. Currently there are some 130,000 requests by voters in the county to obtain such a ballot for this August 26 primary election (voters must request such a ballot, and after they do so will remain on the list for such a ballot for the following election before falling off that list — they would then have to contact the SOE's office to obtain such a ballot again).

In the 2012 general election, 198,699 voters requested such a ballot, and 171,206 returned them. That's 31.12 percent of all voters that year. Hillsborough currently has 760,000 registered voters.

Hillsborough SOE Craig Latimer
  • Hillsborough SOE Craig Latimer
Latimore said that he once considered contracting out the job of sending out and collecting Voter by Mail ballots to a private company, but said at the end it would cost too much and there's enough expertise in his office to do it in-house.

"It's more economical for us to process Vote By Mail ballots," he said. " We have to staff an entire polling site with a lot of bodies (on Election Day). It's a big expense getting the equipment out there. With Vote by Mail we know how much we send out, we know percentage wise how much we're going to get back, we're able to staff for that in the processing end, so it's a very, very economical way of doing elections." 

Voting by mail used to be referred to as voting by absentee ballot, and you had to have a special reason to request such a ballot. But over the past decade in Florida (and across the nation), there has been a push to expand voting days either thru an early ballot or voting via mail. And Latimer said he wanted to clarify the misnomer that Vote by Mail ballots were treated like provisional ballots — only counted if there's was a deadlocked election.

"There's a big myth out there that vote by mail ballots aren't counted unless there's such a difference in the race," he said. "And that is so far from the truth. Vote by Mail ballots are actually the first ballots counted by law on Election Night. "

CL asked Latimer about the perception some people have about a local supervisor of elections office that it's a pretty relaxed place to work until there's an upcoming election."

"It's a lot like NASA," he retorted. "We just sit around until it's time to put the next shuttle in the air, push the button," he said, laughing. But no, he insists that there is always work to do, whether it's making preventive maintenance on the machines or conducting outreach to get people to vote in the next election.

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