In Palm Beach County, there will be 16 early voting sites. This year, people who choose to vote by mail can drop their ballots off at early voting drop boxes at the sites.

WEST PALM BEACH -- Nearly half a million Palm Beach County residents are expected to vote this month - maybe more, with presidential primaries topping a 2020 ballot chock full of local races and referenda.

Supervisor of Elections Wendy Sartory Link said Thursday that, judging from past years, roughly one-third of those voters will weigh in before the Tuesday, March 17 Election Day.

The elections office and its nearly 4,000 employees have been working to make that early voting experience easier and more efficient than ever, Link said.

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When early voting starts Saturday, there’ll be 16 sites open throughout the county, from 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. daily. The sites also will be open for "Souls to the Polls" voting, the Sunday before Election Day, when many residents go directly from pews to polling places.

On Friday a group of organizations wrote Link to urge that she extend early voting hours and days to the legal maximum, "so that every voter be given the maximum opportunity to make their voice heard."

The coalition, including All Voting is Local, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Fair Elections Center and Campaign Legal Center, said county early voting sites should be open 12 hours a day, not eight. An extra side should be added in Delray Beach, the group’s letter said.

The group also said there should be 14 days of early voting, not the nine for which Palm Beach County arranged. With the election less than two weeks off, it’s too late to fix that, however.

The group sent similar letters to election supervisors in Alachua, Broward and Volusia counties.

Link said Friday afternoon she had been busy with election preparations and hadn’t seen the letter. But the early voting dates offered for March and August are the same as they were in 2016, "and it is my understanding that there were no significant lines...," she said.

"We have more locations now than we did then. In fact we have the most sites we have ever had. If we determine, based on March elections, that we need additional days or times in August, we will adjust at that time. We are already planning to be open the full amount of time for the full allotted days for the general election in November.

"Early voting is starting tomorrow, and will be open through the remainder of the allotted days, even on Sunday, which is not required by statute. Given the concerns with the coronavirus, we are strongly encouraging voters to consider vote-by-mail, which will also alleviate lines at early voting sites. We are opening our office on Saturday to accommodate the voters who want to make a request for a vote-by-mail ballot to be mailed to them."

This year, people who choose to vote by mail in Palm Beach County can drop their ballots off at early voting sites, without waiting on line. There’ll be drop boxes for the purpose.

As for coronavirus concerns, the elections office has ordered Clorox wipes and Purell hand sanitizer dispensers. "We’ll be constantly wiping down surfaces, our equipment and having hand wipes available for people," Link said.

She evinced little concern that election workers fearing coronavirus might desert their posts.

The Supervisor of Elections Office has 400 early voting positions, in addition to its 3,510 regular election workers. Usually 50 to 75 drop out, whether because they don’t feel well or their plans changed. This year, only a couple have cited coronavirus concerns, she said.

Early voters will find a new check-in process. The old iPads have been replaced with a tablet called EVid.

In the past you were issued a ticket and waited for a ballot. Now when you sign in, each EVid has its own printer and your ballot will be printed on the spot and handed to you, so there’s no chance of picking up the wrong ballot, Link said.

Looking at your ballot this year might flash your memory back to grade school, as you’ll be asked to make your selections by filling in ovals, not connecting arrows. Until now, Palm Beach was the only county in the state that still had arrow ballots, Link said.

Votes will be registered on new ExpressVote machines, and then fed into another machine called a DS200, to be tabulated.

The early voting system now complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and has instructions in Spanish and Creole as well as English, and audio readers for people who speak Creole but don’t read it.

The ExpressVote machines also have audio set up with braille pads, so the visually impaired can listen and vote more easily.

With all the new equipment coming into use, elections officials have held outreach events at the South Florida State Fair, SunFest, community events and homeowners association meetings, to familiarize the public. They’ve conducted 180 such events, she estimated.

"We’ve done several mock elections to make sure that we’re ready," Link added.

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