June 16, 2024


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Online mail ballot request forms get updated to comply with new Florida law

Tampa Bay voters who want to vote by mail will soon again be able to make those requests online.

For the past three months, many Florida voters wanting to receive ballots by mail often had to submit paper forms or call in their requests. That’s because the online system that nearly every elections office in the state uses had to go through a significant update following the passage of a new state voting law.

The online forms started to reappear on county elections sites Thursday.

It’s unclear how many people were inconvenienced by the temporary closure of the online system, which is provided by vendor VR Systems. There are no statewide elections scheduled this year, although several municipalities have upcoming elections, including a primary in St. Petersburg on Aug. 24.

Some voting advocates said the downtime likely impeded some voters and argued that this issue is just one small example of unintended consequences that could crop up as Florida works to implement its new voting law.

The forms’ unavailability had “a negative impact on a lot of very busy people who may not have a great deal of time to round back and try another method,” League of Women Voters of Florida President Cecile Scoon said Wednesday.

Scoon said election supervisors and voter advocacy groups are working to figure out what changes need to be made to comply with the voting law, Senate bill 90.

The new law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 6, limits the use of drop boxes to early voting hours and requires the boxes be monitored in person. It also requires voters to annually renew their request for vote-by-mail ballots and provide more identification information to get one, limits the number of ballots individuals can possess and expands access for partisan observers, among other changes.

The League of Women Voters of Florida is one of the groups that has sued the state over the new voting legislation, alleging it deliberately and disproportionately impacts elderly voters, voters with disabilities, students and communities of color. Scoon also complained that the law was rushed into passage, leading to confusion over what the law requires election supervisors and groups registering voters to do.

One of the provisions of the law requires voters requesting vote-by-mail ballots to provide personal identification information — a license number, Florida ID card number or the last four digits of a social security number — that matches their voter registration.

The online vote-by-mail request form didn’t previously include space for voters to securely submit that information. The system was taken offline shortly after the new law became effective in May.

“There were complex changes needed in the elections software which took time to plan, build, test and deploy,” VR Systems’ Chief Operating Officer Ben Martin said. The Tallahassee-based company provides election administration services to nearly every county in Florida.

Voters across Florida could still request mail ballots through other means while the online request form was unavailable. In Pinellas County, that included calls, emails and in-person delivery, according to deputy elections supervisor Dustin Chase.

The Pinellas County elections site had the updated VR Systems online mail ballot request form running by midday Thursday. The request page had been visited nearly 1,300 times in July while it wasn’t functioning, Chase said. Over 700,000 people are registered to vote in the county, according to the election supervisor’s website.

Voters who provide personal identification information that is accurate but doesn’t match what is listed on their voter registration will receive an error while using the online mail ballot request form, Chase said.

“You will have to call our office or contact us another way,” he said, adding that Pinellas voters can also update their voter registration online.

Though Pasco County’s online vote-by-mail ballot request form was not available Friday, elections supervisor Brian Corley told the Times earlier this week that there had been “no disruption.”

“It states right on the website that a voter can call our office and we will assist them,” Corley wrote in a text.

As of midday Friday, the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections site also did not have the online form available, but did offer a printable form that could be returned via email.

Still, the more accessible elections can be, the better, said Ricardo Negron-Almodovar, Florida campaign manager for voting rights group All Voting Is Local.

“Not everyone has the means to go in person to request a vote-by-mail ballot, or they might not feel safe doing so. Having this option makes voting accessible,” Negron-Almodovar said.

A spokesperson with the Florida Department of State, which includes the Division of Elections, did not respond to calls and an email earlier this week requesting comment.

The last day for St. Petersburg voters to request a mail ballot for the Aug. 24 primary is Aug. 14. The mayoral race is on the ballot, as are three City Council races.