Voters in Polk County’s municipal elections will have an option that has become standard in recent years. They will be able to submit completed vote-by-mail ballots in drop boxes managed by the local elections office.
Perhaps for the last time.
A bill championed by Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature would bar elections officials from using drop boxes as a way to receive voters’ ballots, among other changes to election procedures. It is part of a national trend of attempts by Republicans to restrict voting processes following a presidential election that prompted unsupported claims of fraud by former President Donald Trump.
Six local cities will hold elections April 6: Bartow, Dundee, Haines City, Lake Alfred, Lake Wales and Lakeland. The Polk County Supervisor of Elections office will provide drop boxes in the city halls that remain open to the public and at the department’s offices in Bartow and Winter Haven.
“They’re monitored by staff, and they are sealed, including tamper-evidence seals, and then they are physically secured, literally, with a chain, physically locked to the position in the city hall,” Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said.
The city administration buildings in Bartow and Lake Wales are not open because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Edwards said.
The elections office has installed drop boxes for elections going back to at least 2012, Edwards said. Before that, many voters would deliver completed mail ballots to elections offices and early voting sites, so the department began using drop boxes as a way to keep the ballots secure, she said.
More than 35,000 voters in Polk County used drop boxes for the November general election, and no problems occurred, Edwards said.
The boxes at the city buildings and the operations center at 79 Florida Citrus Blvd. in Winter Haven are inside. The drop box at the elections office headquarters, 250 South Broadway Ave. in Bartow, is outside but is under camera surveillance at all times, Edwards said.
“I’m 100 percent confident that we have these ballot drop boxes in secure locations being monitored,” Edwards said. “I just want to also remind — this is optional. If you don’t want to use a drop box, don’t use a drop box. If you have any concerns, just don’t use it. I’m not concerned. I know they’re secure.”
Voters have plenty of other ways to participate. Mail ballots may still be delivered in person to elections offices and of course may be mailed in the envelopes the department provides. The Supervisor’s office will offer early, in-person voting at its two locations and the Lakeland government center at 930 E. Parker St. from March 29 through April 5, excluding Saturday and Sunday.
Precincts will be open on the traditional election day of April 6.
The November presidential election generated voter participation of 73%, Edwards said. She anticipates turnout between 15% and 20% for the municipal elections.
The Florida Supervisors of Elections, the association of county officials, has expressed opposition to some of the bills proposed in the current legislative session, Edwards said. Those include one sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, that would prohibit drop boxes, reduce the time period for requesting mail ballots and require voters to renew those requests every year.
“I’m just kind of at a loss to understand why the Florida Legislature would want to inconvenience our voters,” said Edwards, a former president of the state association. “They’re going to make voters mad is what they’re going to do, and I don’t know why.”
If passed, the mandate to request a mail ballot each year would add work for elections offices, but Edwards said that’s not why she opposes it.
“This is not about any additional work we have,” she said. “We love conducting elections. We love serving the public. It’s not a problem for us. It’s going to be an inconvenience for voters, and also some voters might not realize it. And so they’re going to get a rude awakening at the last moment. It just seems like an unnecessary harassment of voters.”
The deadline for registering to vote in the April 6 elections has passed, but registered voters may request mail ballots through March 27. The elections office is consolidating some voting precincts in Lakeland, and Edwards urged voters to check for their assigned polling place.
Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.
Elections will be held April 6 for races in Bartow, Dundee, Haines City, Lake Alfred, Lake Wales and Lakeland. Early voting begins March 29.