TALLAHASSEE — More people voted by mail in Pinellas County in the 2012 election than in any other county in Florida, but for some, it ended badly: Their votes didn't count.
Among the record 249,000 Pinellas voters who voted absentee, 737 did not follow basic instructions, and the county's canvassing board disqualified their ballots.
Statewide, nearly 2.4 million people voted absentee this year — a record — and the overwhelming majority did count.
Bad ballots make up a tiny fraction of each county's total of absentees, but they reveal a contradiction: Voting absentee may be easy and convenient, but it's fraught with peril.
"Absentee ballots are processed and verified using different standards than regular ballots," said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, "and as such are routinely rejected at a higher rate."
All over Florida, voters made the effort to fill out the longest ballot in memory, then neglected to sign the ballot envelope, which is grounds for rejection. Others moved to another county after being sent a ballot — not allowed. Some first-time voters who registered by mail did not include a copy of a photo ID as the law requires.
For nearly half of all Pinellas voters whose ballots were rejected, the problem was the same: The signature on the ballot paperwork did not match the signature on file.
"No one wants to reject even one ballot," said Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, the state's leading proponent of voting by mail in a county with a large pool of elderly voters.
Miami-Dade rejected nearly 2,500 absentees and Broward 2,100, far more than any other counties in the state, and about 1 percent of all absentees in each.
Pasco County rejected 457 absentees out of more than 60,000 cast, while Hillsborough rejected 1,669 out of more than 171,000 cast.
Those two counties' rejection rates are higher than Pinellas' because they include absentees that arrived after polls closed on Nov. 6. Pinellas had 778 of those, but did not include them as rejected ballots.
Hillsborough rejected three dozen absentees cast by people who voted for the first time in Florida. Those voters were required to mail a copy of an ID, and 35 didn't.
A total of 99 Hillsborough voters had their ballots tossed out because of non-matching signatures.
"The signatures must match. That's extremely important," said Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard. "It's a convenient way to vote, but you must follow the steps."
Angela Thornburgh, 25, of Valrico said her signature has changed dramatically over the years.
"At 18, when I signed up to vote, my signature was in some strange and forgettable hybrid stage," Thornburgh said.
She said she ordered a mail ballot late in this election cycle due to work and travel commitments and did not have time to update her signature at the elections office.
"I gave my old signature a shot and failed," she said. "I have been pleased with my voting experience and any mistake was my own."
She said she would update her signature before voting again.
Everyone's "John Hancock" changes over time, and for some voters it may change significantly due to age, health problems or other factors.
The state Legislature is now embarking on a long review of all that what haywire in the Florida election, from bottlenecks of people at voting sites to the multitude of lawmaker-backed ballot questions.
At a hearing Tuesday, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, asked elections expert Ron Labasky whether voters can resolve signature problems to ensure that their votes count.
Labasky, the attorney for a statewide association of election supervisors, said they can, but by law, only if they do it before they request an absentee ballot.
Labasky testified that every voter whose absentee ballot is rejected must be told of that by the county elections office.
"After the fact?" Latvala asked Labasky.
"Yes, after the fact," Labasky replied.
The definitive legal decision on the issue dates to 1954, in the case of Lock vs. St. Petersburg Beach, which held that the voter who casts an absentee ballot has a responsibility to employ care. In 1976, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Boardman vs. Esteva that "substantial compliance" with the law by a voter is sufficient.
Clark said that case is what the three-member Pinellas canvassing board uses in judging whether to count an absentee ballot or not.
"What the court said was that in the absence of any evidence of fraud, the ballot should be accepted," Clark said.
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.