After touting the safety of voting sites, Broward election officials now say they won’t stop people from voting if they don’t wear masks.
The statement from the Broward elections supervisor stunned legal experts who say permitting maskless voting would clearly conflict with COVID-19 court rulings that already have upheld mask laws.
The Broward County Supervisor of Elections told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that it cannot turn away anti-maskers who are eligible to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election: They have a right to vote under federal law. And elections officials argue that outweighs any local law on masks.
Steve Vancore, a Broward elections office spokesman, said: “We follow local ordinances and guidelines. However, if someone refuses to wear a mask we cannot deny them the right to vote. We nudge, encourage and remind them of the local ordinance but if they insist on not wearing one, we can’t deny them the right to vote.”
It remains to be seen how many South Floridians will insist on hitting the polls without facial coverings. For months, mask requirements have spurred debate weighing people’s personal rights against public health. Those opposed to wearing masks don’t want the government telling them what to wear, while mask supporters want to ensure the virus doesn’t spread due to recklessness.
The issue could spark a battle between Broward’s county administration, which is enforcing the mask order, and the elections supervisor.
People and businesses “that do not adhere to the facial covering requirements are subject to fines and other penalties,” said county spokeswoman Margaret Stapleton on Tuesday. “These citations in no way preclude anyone from performing an activity, such as voting, that is a constitutional right and privilege for every citizen.”
“If people are endangering the public by disregarding an Emergency Order, we will respond to the public safety issue with a citation,” said Lenny Vialpando, director of Broward County’s Environmental Protection & Growth Management Department.
In response, Vancore said: “We’re not going to deny somebody the right to vote. If the county wants to fine us for that, we’ll take that up if it happens.”
The country is so divided that, too often, whether you refuse to wear a mask is a reflection of your ideals and who you intended to pick for president, said Margate Commissioner Antonio Arserio, who is registered with no party affiliation.
The issue of maskless voting came to light when Arserio recently told residents that they had various options to vote on Nov. 3, including voting in person without a mask. “Some people like voting by mail, some like early voting, and some like going in person with no mask on Election Day. All three ways are perfectly fine with me, but please vote,” he told them.
On Tuesday he said people “are extreme on both sides. I don’t want that to be a prohibitive factor for voting.”
Legal experts say requiring masks is completely within the bounds of the election supervisors' oversight, because it’s their responsibility to ensure the safety of everyone casting a ballot. They say wearing a mask doesn’t prohibit someone from exercising their right to vote.
“I don’t even understand the nexus between that argument,” said Lynn Gelin, Delray Beach’s city attorney. “There is nothing by wearing a mask that would preclude someone from voting. There just isn’t.”
She called mask-wearing a “minimal intrusion” during a pandemic. "Why wouldn’t you want to enforce that rule?” she asked.
Professor Caroline Mala Corbin, a University of Miami law professor, is an expert on constitutional law and First Amendment rights, who said although the right to vote is protected by the Constitution, no constitutional right is absolute.
She said the Supreme Court has held that it is constitutional to place certain restrictions on the right to vote. For example, it can require you to have an ID card before you vote. “If it can require you to bring an ID card to protect election integrity; it can require you to wear a mask to protect the health of everyone around you,” Corbin said.
She also said there is an argument to be made about the rights of other voters. “To refuse to wear a mask is to compromise the voting rights of other people at the polling place.”
Broward elections officials have taken steps to battle COVID-19. For the primary, they added sanitizer, wipes, soap, alcohol and paper towels to each polling place’s supplies. In-person voting was way down for the August primaries, but Broward Supervisor of Elections Peter Antonacci told county commissioners this month that he expects more people to be comfortable with in-person voting on Nov. 3. “You can feel the relief of COVID sort of easing off little by little,” he told them.
All early voting sites and neighborhood polling places on Election Day will be staffed by a janitor to ensure people can "vote in as sanitary a context as they possibly can,” Antonacci said.
In Palm Beach County, voters without masks will be allowed to cast ballots only if they cite a medical problem or some other exemption under the county’s mask law, Elections Supervisor Wendy Sartory Link said. She added that she hopes to appeal to people’s compassion by posting signs asking for mask compliance for the sake of poll workers' safety.
“We are requesting everybody wear a mask because it is part of the Palm Beach County order,” Link said.
Miami-Dade County will take a different approach. If voters were to refuse using a mask or facial covering, they “will be given an opportunity to fill out a ballot or provisional ballot in a dedicated area outside the polling place,” said Robert Rodriguez, the assistant deputy supervisor of elections.
Palm Beach County didn’t encounter problems with people refusing to wear masks during the primary election in August, Link said. “We had great luck in August. We had people who would say ‘I don’t normally like to wear a mask, but I can do it for five minutes,’” she said.
Staff writer Anthony Man contributed to this news article. Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-572-2008 or Twitter @LisaHuriash
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