COVID-19 has forced almost all businesses to change their processes, from small restaurants offering delivery for the first time to large companies allowing employees to work from home. Changes have even taken place in the one industry the eyes of the nation have focused on for months: November elections.
FGCU alumna Gaby Aguirre (’14, Communication) is at the heart of the action as the Lee County Elections Office rolls with the changes brought on by COVID-19, shifting its focus from traditional in-person events, voter registration and interviews with reporters to social media, videos and Zoom meetings.
In June, for example, Aguirre and Communications Department Director Vicki Collins hosted a Facebook Live Q&A with Lee County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Doyle. More than 1,300 people had watched the video by mid-August.
“I am glad I started in an off-year, because an election year has so many layers to it,” says Aguirre with a laugh. She started her current role in 2019.
Aguirre is a Washington, D.C.-area native who moved to Florida with family prior to her senior year of high school. She had been working at a Southwest Florida retirement community for six years when she took a part-time job with the Lee County Elections Office on its Vote-by-Mail Board in 2016.
The Vote-by-Mail Board is a temporary group that assembles a few weeks before the election to process mail-in ballots as they come in, and it was there that Aguirre met Vicki Collins.
She worked again in 2018, and Collins asked Aguirre to join her department as an intern and eventually as a full-time employee.
“She’s a wonderful asset to our office,” says Collins, who has worked at the Lee County Elections Office for 21 years and ran the communications department on her own. “She’s become my right-hand person in a short amount of time, and I’m very grateful to have her on my team, especially this year.”
The communications department’s main responsibility is to share election information with Lee County voters. This includes educating voters about anything from registration deadlines to how to find accurate candidate information. The staff also answers media questions and clarifies numbers, creates ads in English and Spanish to recruit poll workers, and collaborates with other departments to register voters and ensure a smooth election process.
Aguirre says her department has encouraged voters to use mail-in ballots this year because of COVID-19. The elections office is prepared for a 70 percent vote-by-mail turnout in November, and close to a 90 percent overall voter turnout — including vote-by-mail, early voting and voting in-person on Election Day.
“Fifty-one percent of Lee County active registered voters voted by mail in the last general election,” Aguirre says, “so voting by mail is definitely a popular and preferred method of voting in Lee County.”
That preference only increased during the pandemic. For much of June, Aguirre says, the Lee County Elections Office received nearly 1,000 requests every weekday for mail-in ballots for the general election.
In November, Aguirre will find herself leading one of the Vote-By-Mail Board groups that she was a member of in 2016. It’s her first general election in her new role.
Aguirre says the elections process reminds her of systems theory, which she studied at FGCU. “Every part of the system has to work well and there needs to be a leader leading every part of it — that’s a perfect example of how elections work. We have the communications department, we have IT, we have the poll worker department, all these components, and everybody has to be on their A-game for it to work well.”
Aguirre anticipates that in the lead-up to the general election, she and Collins will work long hours, including weekends.
“It can be a high-stress environment because you’re thinking about all these other things that have to, like glue, come together to have a successful election,” Aguirre says. “It’s going to be an historic year.”
Collins says that stress comes, in part, from the attention Florida receives during general elections. “It’s not just local media that we deal with,” she says. “The eye of the world is always on Florida because we’re an important swing state. When it’s a major election year, especially a presidential year, everything we do is scrutinized. It’s a lot of pressure to work under.”