I recently had the good luck to visit with Bill Cowles, the seasoned Orange County Supervisor of Elections, and to tour his mail-in voting system, a combination of manpower and machines in a sprawling warehouse at 119 W. Kaley St. in Orlando.
I wanted to learn more about a new option for using drive-by drop boxes to return your ballot.
State law now allows for drop boxes at early voting sites, so a voter can deposit his or her completed vote-by-mail ballot in a secured drop box, rather than returning it by mail — important in this pandemic era of confusion about voting and the post office.
Once early voting starts on Oct. 19, you can drop your completed ballot by any of the 20 early voting sites in Orange County, which are generally open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. All the drop boxes are outside, and most are drive-through. All the drop boxes are attended, and ballots and boxes are collected each day.
There will be an early voting site within 5 miles of nearly every Orange County resident. A list can be found at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections website.
In the August primary, 11,400 people took advantage of Orange County drive-by drop boxes to return their ballots. This system can give people added security to know they have deposited their own ballot safely into the manned, locked ballot box at an early voting site, Cowles said.
When voters return completed ballots, they are “processed” — dated, sorted via bar codes, verified, opened, and ultimately counted — with the help of an intricate assortment of machines. But for the delicate task of verifying the signature on each ballot envelope, Cowles refuses to entrust machines; instead, trained verifiers perform that multi-layered verification.
One bit of good news: The rumors are false that mail-in votes are counted last, after the polls close Nov. 3. Not in Florida.
Once your ballot is securely in the voting warehouse, Florida law allows the elections staff to start processing mail-in votes up to several weeks before the general election, although they cannot announce any results until the polls close election night. By the time Orange County polls close at 7 p.m. Nov. 3, Cowles said the Orange County elections staff will probably have 95 percent of the mail votes already counted.
Cowles also shared some general advice for voters: Be early, this year more than ever. And it’s a big ballot, in two sheets, so do your research ahead of time.
Does Cowles believe vote by mail is really safe, in light of all the scare stories about fraud? “Yes!” he said. “The statistics on fraud are minuscule — something like .00025%.”
I came away with a personal plan I commend as a safe and easy path for voters in this year of the pandemic, a process with an option to return your ballot personally via the drop boxes:
Order your ballot now.Then request your mail-in ballot online at ocfelections.com or by phone at 407-836-VOTE (8683). The post office recommends requesting the ballot at least 15 days before election day. But no need to wait — request your ballot now.
Vote. Do your research, complete your ballot promptly, and be sure to sign and date the outer envelope. You can find objective research information at a League of Women Voters website, Vote411.org.
Drive by a drop box. Deposit your completed ballot in one of the Orange County drop boxes at an early voting site between Oct. 19 and Nov. 1. There’s also a 24-hour box by the front door of the central office at 119 W. Kaley St.
Or vote by mail. Or you can return the ballot by U.S. mail, but do it early this year. The post office recommends you mail your ballot at least seven days before election day, but why wait? Of course you also have the option to vote in person, but you’ll need to surrender that unused vote-by-mail ballot at your polling place.
Verify your ballot. After a couple of days, check online at www.ocfelections.com to be sure your ballot was received and accepted. If any problem arises, starting early gives you time to cure (correct) your ballot before the Nov. 5 cure deadline.
Ann Patton is an Orlando-based writer who is interested in community, environmental, and social justice issues.