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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Mail-in ballot signature case highlights 'crazy quilt' of Florida voting laws



This presidential election may be national, but questions of how people vote and whose ballots are deemed valid are decided by a hodgepodge of local officials in each of Florida's 67 counties.

"Our election laws are a crazy quilt ... of differences and no uniformity," said Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections for Leon County.

It's a phrase he borrowed from Mark Walker, the U.S. District Court judge in Tallahassee overseeing a lawsuit brought by Democrats who want courts to give more protection to mail-in voters whose signatures on file with local election supervisors don't match those on their ballots.

At a two-hour hearing Friday, Walker questioned Sancho, who is retiring this year after more than 25 years as supervisor, on the particulars of voting in Florida voting. How does mail voting work in Leon County? In the rest of Florida? What exact steps do election officials take to make sure every vote is counted?

And more to the point: How do counties decide that a voter's signature doesn't match what's on file, and what happens next?

In Leon County, signatures on mail ballot envelopes are verified electronically, Sancho said, and almost all of them are deemed acceptable. A few get passed on to elections staff, and some of those are handed to the county canvassing board to make an official determination about whether they match the signature in the voter file.

But this process may look different elsewhere in the state.

"Rural jurisdications, you would not need to have this kind of mechanized approach to the signatures," Sancho said.

Only the canvassing board -- made up of a judge, a county commissioner not up for re-election and the supervisor of elections -- can decide to throw out ballots where signatures don't match what's in the record, but once they do, there is no legal way to fix it.

And because each county has its own canvassing board, they each could have their own standards. That can wreak havoc for voters whose signatures change from when they first register, a common occurrence, says Sancho, especially when people register at age 18.

A missing signature, meanwhile, can be fixed with an affidavit that supervisors mail to voters.

That's what Democrats sued over.

Walker is under a tight deadline with voting ending Nov. 8. He scheduled a hearing for Monday morning but gave no hints as to how he feels about the case.

He did say that after hearing the arguments, he was worried about mail voting, something he has never done.

Posing a hypthothetical, Walker said, "If I mail in my ballot, which in light of this testimony, I don't know why I would..."

[Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2016 2:05pm]


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