More elections officials in Florida said Wednesday they won’t turn away voters who refuse to wear masks — concerned they’d be accused of infringing on people’s right to vote during the pandemic.
Elections officials in Florida’s biggest counties told the South Florida Sun Sentinel they have little choice but to allow people who won’t wear masks to cast their ballots.
The issue of maskless voting came to the forefront Tuesday when the Broward Supervisor of Elections revealed he won’t 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.
Some elections officials from other counties say they, too, will offer people the opportunity to wear masks, but if voters refuse, they still will let them vote:
Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said Wednesday that they will offer masks but "if [voters] refuse, we will let them vote.” Orange County, which is home to Orlando, has a mask ordinance.
In Lee County, poll workers will request that voters “thank their poll workers with the simple courtesy of wearing a mask.” But no one will be turned away if they choose not to wear a mask, according to a spokeswoman. There is no countywide mask order in Lee County, but poll workers are required to wear masks.
In Polk County, workers will encourage people to wear masks, but will not turn anyone away. Polk does not have a countywide order for masks, though some cities have their own mask requirements.
In Duval and Hillsborough counties, polling places will offer voters a mask if they come without one, but will not deny voters their right to vote if they choose not to wear a mask. In Hillsborough, face coverings are mandatory while inside businesses that are open to the public. A mandate that requires masks in public and indoor locations was signed by the Jacksonville mayor and covers all of Duval County.
Julie Marcus, the supervisor of elections for Pinellas County, said it’s impractical to enforce the county’s mask order for an election. “Our responsibility as election administrators is to make voting as safe as possible without impeding on someone’s Constitutional right to cast a ballot," she said. Placing armed officers at the polls to make sure voters wear masks would lead to lawsuits that the county could lose, a spokesman for Marcus said. “You’re not going to win against the Constitution.”
Although some legal experts say that requiring masks doesn’t infringe on people’s ability to vote, not everyone agrees. Peter Antonacci, Broward County’s appointed elections supervisor, concluded his office was unable to reject people from voting if they refuse to wear masks.
Randolph Braccialarghe, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, said he thinks Broward could avoid controversy by ensuring no one was turned away from voting, especially because Florida already has faced so much scrutiny in past elections. “The rest of the country has kind of looked down on us as if we were the stepchild,” he said.
In this heated political climate, both President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden could contest the results of the election, Braccialarghe said. “The last thing any supervisor of elections would want would be to be accused that they turned away voters,” he said.
Antonacci is “doing everything he can to make sure everybody gets the right to vote, and the ballots get counted fairly and there is no scandal this time,” Braccialarghe said. “That would be something new for us — to not have a scandal and not be the laughingstock.”
It remains unclear how many people would show up to the polls insisting to not wear a mask. Broward and other counties have said they’d provide masks to any voters who need them.
Still, South Florida has seen several instances of people railing against masks. Palm Beach County drew the nation’s attention this summer when about 45 angry people urged elected officials to vote against requiring people to wear face coverings in public.
Most recently, a group of anti-maskers strolled into a Fort Lauderdale Target and ripped off their coronavirus masks in protest, playing Twisted Sister’s hit song “We’re not Gonna Take It” as they encouraged shoppers to join them.
Chris Nelson, an anti-mask activist who has organized protests including the one at Target, said he knew the policy when he voted in the August primary in Coral Springs. Although poll workers initially argued with him and had him wait outside for a crowd to clear, they eventually allowed him to vote with the request he stay away from others, he said.
“I’m going to go right in, and I’m going to vote without a mask,” said Nelson, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale, of the November election.
“All my people are going to go vote,” he said, referring to others who oppose masks and would show up to vote.
Some volunteer poll workers worried that not requiring masks would heighten the risk of COVID-19 spreading at the polls. Bryan Sklar and his wife were looking forward to the November presidential election as their first chance to become poll workers.
After learning the Broward Supervisor of Elections won’t turn away people without masks, the Plantation couple have changed their minds. “Now I will not volunteer,” said Sklar, 58. “The risk for being a poll worker just increased to a point that is unacceptable for me.”
Antonacci told the South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial Board on Wednesday that he knew as soon as the mask order was passed earlier this year, he’d have to decide what to do when it came time for elections. But he didn’t speak publicly about that issue to “keep the temperature down.”
The strategy initially paid off: Antonacci said there was “not a single incident” of problems during the August primary. “We appeal to people’s good nature and citizenship and abide by the law. ... We are confident people will act accordingly.”
Florida’s top elections boss, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, hasn’t weighed in on the issue of allowing people to vote without masks. A spokesman for Lee’s office didn’t comment Wednesday afternoon.
Even though Antonacci said he won’t turn away maskless voters, the county may still serve as the mask police on his behalf: Antonacci said he spoke to Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry on Wednesday and “she assured me Broward County will enforce the ordinance.”
He did not offer details on how Henry planned to enforce her mask order, but said “she is prepared for contingencies. They are the enforcement authority.”
“They have a job to do. I have a job to do. They have an ordinance. It’s their job to enforce it," he said. "I’m going to offer the convenient platform for people to vote.”
Henry’s office would not respond to repeated requests for comment Wednesday, although a spokeswoman Tuesday said violators — including “individuals, businesses and organizations, including local government entities” — who don’t follow the mandate would be fined.
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.
And if voters show up to the polls and say they’re exempt from wearing a mask, they’ll be taken at their word, said Palm Beach Mayor David Kerner on Wednesday.
“We want everybody to vote in a safe manner,” Kerner said. Under the current order, people can excuse themselves from mask-wearing for religion or health reasons, but their claims don’t have to be proven.
“At the end of the day it comes down to a civic obligation,” he said. He will not be sending code enforcement to the polls, saying he objects to “the government placing enforcement officials at any polling site other than to embrace the right to vote.”
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.
Some poll workers aren’t expecting a problem because they saw lots of people wear masks during the August primaries. “Poll workers are not the mask police,” said Monica Elliott, president of the League of Women Voters of Broward County.
Elliott, who worked the polls in August in Southwest Ranches, said that only a couple of voters forgot their masks, but they quickly availed themselves of the free ones the workers handed them. “We were certainly encouraged to make a maskless voter aware of the ordinance — in as polite but firm tones as possible,” she said.
Staff Writer Anthony Man contributed to this report.
Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-572-2008 or Twitter @LisaHuriash
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