Not all ballots count
Think your vote will count just because you mailed your ballot or showed up at the polls? Maybe not. Absentee ballots and provisional ballots that are cast when a question arises about a voter's eligibility can be rejected later by county canvassing boards. A look at the rate at which voters' absentee and provisional ballots were rejected in Florida's Aug. 14 primary.
Absentee ballot Provisional ballot
rejection rate rejection rate
Average statewide 1.8% 22%
American Indian 1.9 % 15.8%
Asian 3.5% 21.2%
Black 2.8% 24.3%
Hispanic 2.8% 32.7%
White 1.6% 18%
Democratic 1.9% 22.5%
Republican 1.7% 15.2%
No Party Affiliation 2.5% 34.1%
Young (21 & younger) 4.6% 28.6%
Middle (22-64 years old) 2.5% 21.2%
Old (65 & older) 1.3% 18%
Source: Analysis of Florida Division of Elections voter history files by Michael C. Herron and Daniel A. Smith.
With more than a million absentee ballots already cast in advance of the Nov. 6 general election, a question that should be on the minds of many Floridians is: Will my vote actually be counted? A healthy skepticism about the state's electoral process is not necessarily evidence of paranoia. Indeed, a little known secret in the Sunshine State is that canvassing boards in each county are currently meeting, almost certainly marking countless absentee ballots "rejected as illegal."
Not only are three-member canvassing boards, one per county, responsible for determining which absentee ballots are counted, they also are tasked with assessing the validity of provisional ballots cast by voters who are prevented at the polls from voting a regular ballot. An unsuspecting registered voter will be required by poll workers to cast a provisional ballot if he or she fails to provide proper ID, is accused by an observer of being ineligible to vote, or is simply making an intercounty address change.
As to the latter point, the state Legislature in 2011 decided to no longer permit registered voters in Florida who have moved from one county to another within the state to update their addresses and cast regular ballots at the polls. We expect to see plenty of provisional ballots due to this provision, and just like with absentee ballots, local canvassing boards will determine if provisional ballots — which are sealed at the polls in privacy sleeves — should be tabulated.
The important role of county canvassing boards is not new. Indeed, one of the most enduring images from Florida's election meltdown in 2000 is that of a Palm Beach County canvassing board member, glasses perched upon forehead, holding a punch-card ballot up to the light and trying in vain to divine whether an inscrutable chad was hanging or merely dimpled. While Florida's antiquated punch-card ballots have been retired, canvassing boards have retained their important functions in Florida election administration.
Of course, there's good reason why canvassing boards reject some absentee and provisional ballots. Many voters fail to sign the backs of the privacy envelopes containing their absentee ballots and others are received by Supervisors of Elections offices after the polls close. But many other absentee ballots and provisional ballots are rejected because a voter's signature appears not to match a signature on file with a county elections office. In these cases, it is left to canvassing boards to adjudicate whether a ballot should be processed and counted, or rejected outright.
The discretion of canvassing boards means that absentee ballots and ballots cast provisionally can be risky propositions for voters. Nonetheless, both the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns have pushed their followers to vote by mail (that is, absentee) in an effort to bank votes prior to Nov. 6.
In the Aug. 14 primary election, more than 786,000 voters cast absentee ballots. Over 14,500 of them—nearly 2 percent—were deemed invalid by local canvassing boards. Nearly 3,000 more Floridians were required to cast provisional ballots in the August primary, and canvassing boards found reason to reject nearly 1 out of 4 of them. Keep in mind, this was for a primary election in which "super voters" — the state's most highly engaged voters — made up the vast majority of the voter pool.
One might think that the rejection rates of absentee and provisional ballots are fairly constant across the state's 67 counties. But by sifting through the voter history files maintained by the state Division of Elections, we found that the rate of rejected absentee and provisional ballots was not equally distributed along racial/ethnic, age, or party registration groupings in the August primary.
As the accompanying graphic reveals, Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian Americans were considerably more likely to cast absentee ballots rejected by canvassing boards than the statewide average. Hispanics, and to a lesser degree African-Americans, were also disproportionately more likely to have canvassing boards reject their provisional ballots.
In terms of partisanship, Florida voters not identifying with a political party were more likely to have their absentee and provisional ballots rejected by county canvassing boards than the statewide average. Republicans had a considerably lower percentage of their absentee and provisional ballots rejected, and Democrats fell near the statewide means.
But younger voters — those 21 and under — were the group most likely to have their absentee ballots rejected and also were more likely than the statewide average to cast invalid provisional ballots. These voters — many casting ballots for the first time — were more than three times as likely to have their absentee ballots rejected by canvassing boards in the August primary than voters 65 and older.
In the presidential election, it is quite possible that an even higher percentage of provisional ballots will be rejected by local canvassing boards as an influx of first-time and less frequent voters will be lining up at the polls. In light of the disparate absentee ballot rejection rates that we have described here, the latest tactic of the Obama campaign to mirror successful GOP efforts — namely, encouraging its supporters to cast absentee ballots — may in retrospect not look very wise.
Looking beyond the 2012 presidential campaign, we believe that efforts to address differences in varying ballot rejection rates are necessary. These efforts might involve more coordination across Florida's 67 counties, so that all Florida voters face identical standards when their ballots are evaluated, and they could also involve more extensive voter education efforts that remind voters of the importance of signing their absentee ballot certificates. The right to vote is a fundamental one in the United States, and the high absentee and provisional ballot rejection rates we document in the recent August primary should be a concern for all Floridians.
Michael C. Herron is professor of government at Dartmouth College, and Daniel A. Smith is professor of political Science at the University of Florida.