Your guide to fast and safe early voting in special congressional election

In-person early voting in the contest to decide South Florida’s next member of Congress begins Saturday.

There are some changes since the last time people voted early, in the 2020 presidential election.

Some locations will roll out new voting equipment, early voting locations in Broward and Palm Beach counties will offer COVID-19 vaccinations, and under the controversial election law passed this year, there are new restrictions on people returning their vote-by-mail ballots.

Here’s everything you need to know to make it go smoothly.

Voters are selecting the replacement for the late U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who died on April 6.

Democratic and Republican registered voters will each pick their party’s nominee. The district is so heavily Democratic that the winner of that party’s primary is all-but-guaranteed to win the Jan. 11 special general election.

Any registered Democrat or Republican in the Broward and Palm Beach County 20th Congressional District can vote early for nine days, from Oct. 23 through Nov. 1, the Sunday before Election Day.

The hours in both counties are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

A voter may go to any regional site in the county in which they live for early in-person voting. On Election Day, Nov. 3, people must vote in their neighborhood polling locations.

Even though it’s an odd-numbered year, when there aren’t usually elections, voters are filling the open seat. The Constitution requires special elections to fill congressional vacancies, and Florida law gives date-setting authority to the governor but doesn’t impose any deadline.

Gov. Ron DeSantis decided to keep the post open for far longer than recent Florida congressional vacancies. Democrats said that’s because the Republican governor wanted to keep one Democratic vote out of the House to make it harder for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass legislation.

The most important thing is having photo identification that includes a signature. A driver’s license or state-issued ID card is best, but other accepted forms include passports, debit or credit cards, and identification for members of the military, students, retirement centers, neighborhood associations, public assistance, and Veterans Administration health care and government employees.

If the photo ID doesn’t include a signature, another piece of identification with a signature is required.

People can wear election buttons, T-shirts and other indications they support a candidate when they go to vote. Campaign attire doesn’t count as illegal electioneering at the polls.

What people can’t do is attempt to sway voters in the no-campaign zone or hang around in that area after they’ve voted, acting as a human campaign advertisement.

That means a Dale Holness or a Barbara Sharief T-shirt is allowed but distributing handbills for a candidate isn’t.

And people may take pictures of their ballots. However, there’s a limit. People aren’t allowed to take selfies in a polling place because they might end up having someone else in the image.

Palm Beach County is using voting machines that in previous elections have been available for disabled voters at all polling places. People make their choice on a touch screen, and after reviewing for accuracy, print it out. They’ll see and get the printed ballot. A voter then brings the printed ballot and places it in the scanner the way they’ve always inserted ballots before.

Link said it’s faster, saves tax money and avoids stray marks that sometimes makes ballots subject to review by the Elections Canvassing Board.

In Broward, vaccinations are offered at all early voting sites during all days and hours of early voting. Shots are offered by the Florida Department of Health’s Broward county office.

In Palm Beach County, the Health Department will offer vaccinations during all nine days of early voting in Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach. The Palm Beach County Health Care District will administer shots for the first several days Loxahatchee Groves and Belle Glade, then evaluate usage before deciding whether to continue. Vaccinations start at noon. Vaccination hours are noon to 7 p.m.

Supervisors of elections in Broward and Palm Beach counties have continued, and in some cases enhanced, steps to make early voting as safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Broward’s Joe Scott told poll workers that they must be vaccinated for COVID-19 if they wish to work during the special primary and the special general election. He said the directive, which he vetted with the office’s legal counsel, was designed to enhance public safety since poll workers can come into close contact with hundreds of voters, some of whom will be unmasked and unvaccinated.

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Palm Beach County’s Wendy Sartory Link said the poll workers are required to wear masks and have their temperatures checked and complete a COVID questionnaire before they start each shift. Plexiglass shields will separate poll workers and voters.

All early voting sites in both counties allow people to drop off their mail ballots during the hours early voting is operating.

County elections offices also offer secure drop boxes, but the the hours are limited under a law crafted this year by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis changed to place limits on the use of drop boxes for returning vote-by-mail ballots by people who don’t want to send them back via the Postal Service. The hours they’re operating vary by location. Details are available online and by phone.

People can check to see if they’re registered to vote, if they live in the 20th District, the status of mail ballots, and locations and hours of early voting sites online and by phone.

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