Interview with Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley

Full Interview Audio

Supervisor Earley. Thank you for joining me today to discuss the upcoming general election. Can you perhaps give us a simple timeline of when people could start to vote using the various methods available and when they should expect their vote by mail ballots? 

Certainly. The big mail out of vote-by-mail ballots occurred on September 24th. Most voters received their ballots either the following Saturday or Monday. We’ve already received well over 6000 vote-by-mail ballots back in my office. So the question of when you can start voting, it’s now. If you have not requested a vote by mail ballot, I would very strongly encourage you to do so and again, do it now. Don’t wait. That way you’ll maximize the amount of time you have the ballot in hand. You’ll be able to read some of the complicated amendments. It’s not just the presidential races on the ballot. There’s lots of local races and then six Florida constitutional amendments and one local issue here in Leon County. So get the ballots and you’ve got up until November 3rd to get those ballots back to us. But again, don’t wait. Especially if you’re going to use the mail to get things back to us. 

As a follow up question, when is the deadline to request a vote by mail ballot in Leon County?

The official deadline is October 24th, which is 10 days before the election. That’s if you want to have it mailed to you. But again, if you’re gonna get one in the mail, I would hope you would request sooner than that, just to give yourself more time. Another option that a lot of people have been taking advantage of is just coming to my office right now. Actually, all last week and on through this week and clear through the election, you can come directly to my office and get a ballot from our counter. And we’ve got privacy booths set up and you can vote right there. And you just place it in a vote by mail envelope and put it in one of our drop boxes. We count it like a vote by mail; you’ll sign the envelope, but the mail system is never touched. It’s purely straight in-person, you voted. We’re open from 8:30 to 5pm Monday through Friday, and we’ve been processing hundreds of voters that way every day. 

Well, I guess while we’re on the topic of vote by mail, can you give us a little insight into how mail in votes are counted in Leon County? Are they counted as they come in? Or they held into the election or only counted if the election is close?

Very good question. There’s lots of misinformation and disinformation about that, but a lot of that stems from the fact that each state has their own set of election laws that govern how the vote by mail process works. In Florida, we’ve got a long history of doing vote by mail. It used to be called absentee, but it’s the exact same thing. That’s one of the confusing points. It was just a name change in 2016 that changed it from absentee to vote by mail, but it’s the exact same process. The way it works is voters request the ballot; we only send the vote by mail ballot to them or give them one when they request it.  These are voters already that we have addresses for, they’re already in our system, they want one we’ll send it to them. Once they get it, they can vote it if they want. An important point to remember about vote by mail is it really is just giving you an option. If you request the vote by mail, you could still decide to go vote in person if you would like. I’ve been calling it an insurance policy. But the vast majority of people that do get a vote by mail do vote it. It comes in, we immediately scan the envelope because on the back there is an oath that you sign, and your signature should be on there: the voters signature. And it’s attesting that you are who you say you are. And we compare those signatures with the signature we have on file for the voter. And once that comparison is done, and we can see that it is the same voter, my staff will present those envelopes to the canvassing board. Once they say yes, it’s ok to open those up, then we start tabulating those ballots well before the election. For the general election, we’re going to start tabulating vote by mail ballots on October 7th. So almost a month before the election. One of the big misconceptions that a lot of people still have is that we only count vote by mail ballots when the election is close. That is not true. Vote by mail ballots are always counted, and they’re always the first ballots counted in Florida. Like I said, October 7th this year, that’s a little earlier than we normally start. But that’s because we’re getting so many more vote by mail ballots. They are also the first results that are reported election night. Because we’ve already counted them, they were just waiting there to be uploaded as part of our official results. And so we upload those results first thing after 7:00 PM election night, and they’re some of the first results reported. 

Well, how can a voter be sure that their mailed in ballot was received and counted? 

There are lots of tracking mechanisms in place. All counties have this in Florida. If you go to my website, it’s There’s an icon that looks sort of like the American flag, and it says your voter info. Or, you could just type in (all one word) and it will take you to a place where you can put your name in and your date of birth, and you can track your vote by mail ballots status. Whether we’ve received your request, whether we’ve mailed a ballot to you, whether we’ve received the ballot back from you, whether we’ve had a problem with that ballot or not, like matching the signature. If there was no problem, the date that we actually counted your ballot, that’s all trackable right there on our website. Or if you don’t have good access to the Internet, you can always give us a phone call at 850-606-8683, that will take you right to my office staff. And we look lots of people up to verify that we received their ballots back. 

What advice or recommendations do you have for those who are worried that vote by mail is not a safe option or fear that their mailed in ballot may get lost or not get counted? 

For the most part, people are concerned that it might get lost in the mail. There’s been a lot of talk about the mail not operating as smoothly as in the past. Frankly, we haven’t seen any problems really with the postal system in the two elections we’ve already had, and we’ve not had any real big complaints at all from voters not receiving their ballots. But having said that, we’ve rolled out what are called drop boxes, they are big stainless steel boxes about the size of a regular blue mailbox. We have those at our main office, which is a 2990 Apalachee Parkway, which is basically the corner of Apalachee Parkway and Capital Circle, just east of the capital. You can come up to my office even today, we’ve got the drop boxes right inside the front door, and you can drop your ballot off. In that way, you’re not even involving the mail system. Once early voting starts on October 19th and it runs for two weeks, those drop boxes will be in every early voting site, and they’re not inside the polling place (the early voting site), we’re actually in the parking lots. They are staffed, and basically you bring your vote by mail ballot in its green envelope. That’s one thing that some people make a mistake, they think since they’re bringing it to us, they don’t need the envelopes. Yes, still use the envelope. You don’t have to put a stamp on it. We’ll be right there to assist you, and you can put it in the drop box. In that way, again, the postal system is not involved in us receiving those vote by mail ballots. We collect those every single day. There’s a very good chain of custody. We have a lot of security procedures in place, and again those will be tabulated and counted by our voting machines at my office. Basically, every day after October 7th.

You touched on early voting. Can you just elaborate a little bit for those who are unfamiliar with early voting? 

Early voting, it’s really my preferred way to vote every year, except maybe this year because we’re trying to do social distancing and decrease the interactions among our poll workers, some of whom are the more at risk groups. But early voting started in Florida. It started right here in Leon County in the late 1990s. Leon County Courthouse was the first early voting site in the entire state. It has since become a required part of voting throughout the state. In Leon County, we have 10 early voting sites. That’s quite a large number, given our population of 215,000 registered voters. Again, we always push early voting, and it starts October 19th and goes through November 1st, which is a Sunday. Most of the polling sites are open from 10 a.m. To 6 p.m. The only exception is the Courthouse, and that’s 8am to 4pm which kind of corresponds more with the hours of operation of the courthouse. Any voter can go to any early voting sites, and we can look you up. If there’s any problems with your records, we can usually take care of those right then and there. It’s a very good way to vote, especially if you go during the first week of early voting. There’s a lot lower chance of having any kind of a line for voters. And we’re encouraging people that if you do want to vote in person, to go to those early voting sites in that first week, because the longer you wait, you’re going to get more involved with the crowds. And we’re regulating the flow of voters into our polling sites to try and maintain social distancing. That’s a safer environment for the voters, but also for our poll workers who are working for two weeks. So come out, vote early, during the early voting period, and I think you’ll find it to be a very safe experience. 

In regards to mail in ballots, if someone should make a mistake or accidentally double mark their ballot, can they request a second vote by mail ballot, or do they need to come in and vote? 

Well, that’s a very good question. I made a mistake on my ballot when I was voting by mail. So there’s a couple of options. One option, the one we normally suggest is that if you make a mistake on the ballot, call my office and we’ll send you another ballot. It’s very simple. You’re allowed up to three ballots, but it would be very unusual to make multiple mistakes like that. Frankly, if it’s getting closer to the election time, as long as you mark on that ballot, say you marked for one candidate or you started a mark and you partially filled in the oval, and then you realized, no, that’s not my choice, I messed up. Really, you could write a little note. Don’t put your name on the ballot. But you can say I did not mean to vote here and then fill in the oval you did mean to vote and write I meant to vote this one. You could mail it in to us and we’ll actually count it correctly, because the machine will see it, it will kick the ballot back as having a problem, and then it will be brought to the canvassing board of which I’m a member. We will actually look at that. We will understand your messages. So the more clear you are, the better it is for us. And we’ll re-mark your ballot for the voter, and we usually do a few hundred of those every election where voters do make mistakes, they write us a little note that is very easy to understand, and we get their vote tabulated properly after that. Of course, let me say you can come into my office and we’ll give you a replacement there, too, that’s always an option. 

The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has created health concerns for many of our elder citizens. What can you tell us about steps that Leon County is taking or has taken to reduce the risk to these elders? 

Well, certainly the coronavirus pandemic has changed the world of elections because normally elections involve people coming to a polling site, groupings of people and during the early voting period, especially, it’s over a fairly long period of time, especially for our poll workers. And election day, frequently, there are crowds of people coming at that last chance. That’s one of the reasons I’m saying, don’t wait until election day to vote. You want to vote in person? Do it during the early voting period. But directly to your question, some of the things we’ve done to make it a much safer process for voting during a pandemic is first of all, of course, advertising and really encouraging people to use the vote by mail process. You can bring that, drop it off at drop boxes so you don’t even have to use the mail. That does a couple of things. The main reason we’ve been pushing that is because with the pandemic, there is a heightened chance that a polling place may not be able to open election morning. The reason for that is that either poll workers at the last minute may decide they don’t want to come in and work on Election day. In which case, that leaves us scrambling to try and open it up or finding a new place. Or the owners of the polling place, because we don’t own our polling places, we just use other people’s facilities, they decide at the last minute that they don’t want a whole bunch of people coming into their building. But having said that, in Leon County, we have not had any of that happen. None of these last minute problems. We have seen that in other places in Florida, but we’ve been fortunate. We’ve worked really closely with our polling places. So the push for a vote by mail is one thing, and that makes sure that every person has an opportunity to vote. The vote by mail push also decreases the load of people on the polling sites. Instead of about 70% of our voting happening either at an early voting site or on election day in a polling site, about 60% is now done vote by mail, and so that really leaves only 40% of the voters to vote in one of those early voting or election day opportunities. That dramatically decreases the load, which improves social distance, which is a great thing. And, of course, we have been following CDC guidelines. Yes, we have lots of PPE, which is personal protective equipment. We have hand sanitizer. We have masks available. Our poll workers are wearing masks and sometimes masks and face shields at early voting sites. We even have plexiglass barriers between the voter and our poll workers, just so there’s no risk of transmission between people. We can remotely scan people’s IDs so that we don’t even have to touch your driver’s license when you’re checking in to vote. We clean all of the surfaces very thoroughly and usually after every voter, if we can’t keep up exactly with that, we have abundant supplies so that people can use other surfaces that have previously been cleaned until we get all the surfaces clean. So it’s a very clean environment. Like I said, we have new masks and also gloves for voters if they don’t have their own when they come in to vote. Hand sanitizer at the entrance and exit of the polling places. And we’re very much encouraging people to use our sample ballots that were mailed out to everyone on October 5th as part of our election guide, go ahead and understand what the ballot is. Read those amendments before you go to the polling place. Make your selections on the sample ballot, and you can use that as a cheat sheet that you can very quickly mark your official ballot in the polling place and be in and out of that polling site very quickly and efficiently just to minimize your exposure. So we’re trying to do everything we can to create those opportunities to vote safely. And I think the community is rallying around our requests and very much responding appropriately. In the primary election, we had 2.5 times the turnout for vote by mail as normal, so I think the community is very appreciative of our efforts. 

How do voters who live in congregate housing like nursing homes or assisted living facilities, how do they get access to voting? Is there an option to bring ballots to the voters? And if not, what are their options? 

We used to go into assisted living sites or assisted living facilities, and we would bring groups of voters into their meeting rooms. And we would (me and my staff) would help voters go ahead and cast their ballots, and we would go to roughly 20 or more assisted living facilities all throughout the county, and do this before every single election. Certainly with the pandemic the restrictions on who is allowed into the assisted living facilities and really even some of these aggregate housing situations, like some of the elderly, apartment communities, the access has been somewhat more limited. But I think the vote by mail push has really given people ample opportunity to be able to receive their ballots and voted and return them back to us through the mail. Or, you know, certainly people could bring those for themselves and some of their neighbors to our offices. If there’s an assisted living facility or apartment community that has a whole bunch of these ballots that need to be collected, if they give us a call, I’m sure we could send somebody out to pick up a whole bunch of those. That would not be a problem. 

Many of our elder Americans still want to vote at the polling locations. But they struggle with reduced mobility or with stages of disability that make it difficult for them to place their vote in the traditional way. What options are available for these citizens? 

We do have ADA assistive devices, with state of the art capability. The same voting machine that every voter uses. And you could go through the ballot and mark or select your choices using the assistive device and make all your selections. You can review your selections, and then once you’re finished, the machine will actually mark the ballot, mark the ovals, for you. And then it can be either kicked back so you can review or it could just go ahead, and be tabulated. The great thing about this is that, unlike any other system device or machine I’ve seen, this ballot looks identical to regular ballots, so it’s not really easy to determine the few ADA voters who used this machine, how they voted versus all the other ballots that look different. They all look the same. You can hardly tell the difference between that and a hand-marked ballot, so it preserves the privacy of the vote. But it gives a very good interface and uses the exact same features of a paper ballots that makes the paper ballot the preferred way to vote. We have those available at early voting sites. We have them available at our polling places, and we have them available at my office for use by voters. 

Do the voters also have the option to have someone help them make their vote?

That’s always been an option. Certainly, if you’re gonna vote by mail and vote at your home, that’s probably the most likely choice you’ll use. There are some technologies coming down the road that we will likely be implementing in the next cycle of elections. It’s just not quite up to speed yet, and not usable yet. But, of course, any time if you want to vote at home or at the polling sites, certainly in early voting, you can bring someone with you to assist you in marking your ballot. You could let that person know what your choices are and watch them while they mark it for you. Or my staff is always available to assist voters in marking their ballot at the polling sites. Even in my office, that’s a capability. So we always allow people to have assistance in marking their ballots. 

You mentioned earlier scanning a driver’s license. Is a driver’s license required to vote? What if the voter doesn’t have a valid driver’s license anymore? 

Certainly a driver’s license speeds up the process a little bit, but really, in Florida, like many states, we have 16 different types of ID that are valid. Military IDs, Florida driver’s licenses, Florida identification cards if you don’t drive, student IDs, passports. Basically an ID or combination of IDs; we need a picture id from an official source and a signature id from an official source. The driver’s license has both of those features, but if you have two separate IDs, one with a signature and one with your picture, we can use both of those in conjunction with each other. If you do not have any ID, you can still vote. It’s just through a provisional voting process, which has been in use for many, many years in Florida. It works very well. It’s really like a failsafe, the only difference here is that instead of putting your ballot into the voting machine, you put it in the yellow envelope that we have. There’s a bit of a form that you fill out just so we can capture your information and then the bottom, there’s a place where you sign it and we’ll use that signature in the two days following the election and the information on that form to compare your information with what we have on our records and determine that yes, you are a registered voter. It works very much like the vote by mail process. With this, when you fill out that form on the envelope, we’ll give you a number that corresponds to that envelope so that you can call our office and actually go online and verify that, yes, we did count your provisional ballot. So there’s a way to track your provisional very similar to the vote by mail tracking process. If you’re unsure what form of ID to bring, the election guide that went out Monday, October 5th, also has a list of what ID cards can be used.

With the coronavirus being so dangerous for older adults and Leon County currently having one of the higher infection rates in the country and combined with the fact that a large percentage of election workers could be retired or senior citizens, is there a real fear for a shortage of poll workers or closure of polling locations?

Earlier this year in the first two elections, that was a big fear. It’s still a concern. That’s why we’re really pushing hard the vote by mail option so that if there is a problem, the number of voters that would be affected are limited. We do have plans in place. One of the plans is if on election day, we have a few election polling sites that cannot open for any reason, we can very quickly open up one of our early voting sites and divert people over there, and we’ve already made inroads with the local media to help us get that word out. We have been using social media, @leonvotes on twitter, “leonvotes” elsewhere, so if there were any last minute closures, we could get the word out that way. But having said that, we’ve really been communicating very closely with our poll workers and encourage anybody who has any fears or any uncertainty about whether they would come to work for us to let us know ahead of time. We’ve already taken a lot of people out of our poll worker force that had some concerns, and we’ve replaced them with some younger folks on more of an interim basis. That was really working somewhat in conjunction with the governor’s executive order, where he allowed state workers to have a lot of time available as administrative leave so they could come work in the polls. And we’ve replaced probably 400 or so poll workers, which is roughly half of our poll worker team, with people that are much more certain that they’ll be able to work, who don’t have health concerns. They’re not the at risk populations, and that I think greatly decreased our risk of having last minute polling closures. I do not anticipate any issues, but if there are, we do have the other options up and running so that we can quickly divert people to other locations. And if we did that, we would certainly put a sign or some people at the voting sites to let people know, you know, this is available. We would work with the local TV stations, the radio stations and the newspapers to get that information out. A lot of people like to go vote on election day, I get that. I am encouraging people this year, don’t wait till the last minute. Election day is the last chance voting. And so, if something goes wrong, it’s going to be harder to make sure that we can capture your vote. We do have contingency plans in place, but that could be a confusing situation, if you were hoping to go vote here and now you have to go somewhere else. I don’t think that will happen. I completely expect all of our polling sites to be open. I have very good reassurances from the facilities themselves. The poll workers have been showing up this year, which has been great. So I don’t expect there to be any problems. But certainly the best plan is to request a vote by mail ballot. Use it if you choose to, you can still vote in person. If you choose to vote in person, go to one of our early voting sites early on. You can either drop off your vote by mail ballot at a dropbox or going into an early voting site in a week or two prior to the election day and go ahead and vote in person there. So keep your options open. Don’t wait until the last minute is my best advice

Supervisor Earley, thank you for your time. If there’s any other message that you want to send to our elder and senior citizens, I would open the floor to you. 

I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with our elder voters. I think this is an important segment of our population. The only message I would like to set forth is don’t wait to vote. Become an October voter, which really means take advantage of early voting or voting by mail. And again, you can have them delivered to your home. You can vote at home, and you can either mail it back or bring it to one of our dropboxes, in my office or the early voting sites. Don’t be afraid to vote by mail. I’ve been voting by mail since 1992, every single election, and it’s never failed me once. It’s a very safe way to vote. Florida’s got a long history of doing this effectively, and probably right now, it’s the most convenient and one of the safest ways to vote during this pandemic. Don’t believe the misinformation out there. Some of that is related to other states. And so there’s confusion, people are just relating to a national audience things that only affect certain states. Florida has very good laws in place. The reason we’re always in the news around elections is because our elections are so close. But we’re very good about making sure every ballot is counted. And if you have any questions, call my office: we’re the most trusted source of information when it comes to what’s really true about elections, and that number is 850-606-8683. And we welcome voters to call. We love helping people, and that’s why we’re in the business we’re in.