How can Florida best brace for future elections? (Hint: It’s in the mail)

The state’s best path forward may lie in the adoption of a system in which almost all voting is done by mail.
Mail ballots sit on pallets waiting to be trucked to the US Postal Service and mailed to voters in October at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Service Center, Largo. [SCOTT KEELER  |   Times]
Mail ballots sit on pallets waiting to be trucked to the US Postal Service and mailed to voters in October at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Service Center, Largo. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Feb. 28, 2019|Updated March 4, 2019

One of the reasons Florida’s election system has repeatedly endured national embarrassment in the last two decades is that, in their search for solutions to problems real and imagined, Florida lawmakers have sometimes created more complications.

Following the disastrous 2000 presidential recount, state legislators scrapped punch-card ballots and encouraged a move to touchscreen voting machines, only to spend millions replacing outdated, untrustworthy equipment with more modern, untrustworthy equipment. A few years later, a sweeping election law created to curb unsupported allegations of voter fraud created massive Election Day lines.

And in November, a new and ironic problem born of another recount-era change presented itself: As if an election weren’t difficult enough to handle in Florida, the state has now divided voting into three parallel systems.

Due largely to a 2002 change in absentee ballot laws, voting in November split equally for the first time among votes cast at Election Day precincts, early voting centers and by mail. And it was the 2.6 million mail ballots that caused the most complications by stretching South Florida election staffs thin in large counties and gumming up the count on election night — issues that spawned allegations of ballot stuffing, protests and more than a half-dozen lawsuits.

“Florida is in that sour spot where everything is coming together to create a system that is most likely to have problems,” said Christopher Mann, a Skidmore College political science professor who studies mail voting. “It’s just more opportunities for things to go wrong.”

Ahead of their legislative session, Florida lawmakers have discussed tweaking the process, such as giving supervisors more time to count ballots. But election officials in states that consistently receive high marks for their voting systems say the state should consider an ambitious overhaul, even if it seems counterintuitive.

Voting At Home

Though absentee ballots caused or contributed to a bulk of the problems in November — when South Florida election offices broke down during an unprecedented three statewide recounts — the state’s best path forward may lie in the adoption of a system in which almost all voting is done by mail. Election experts and officials in states that have adopted the system say it’s a way to both simplify voting and increase voter participation. And they believe that Florida is already nearing an unsustainable tipping point in its shifting system.

“There are a few states that have the worst of all worlds,” said Phil Keisling, the chairman of a pro-mail ballot organization called the National Vote At Home Institute. “And I would argue that Florida is one of them.”

Keisling was secretary of state in Oregon in 2000 when, as the result of a voter referendum, the state closed Election Day precincts and instead mailed a ballot to every registered voter. The concept has since been picked up in Washington state and in Colorado, which moved primarily to mail voting in 2014 while adding regional Election Day voting centers.

As a result, previously low-turnout, off-year elections have seen spikes in participation, and a Pew Research study found that the cost of holding elections had decreased by 40 percent. Election supervisors, especially those in populous jurisdictions, no longer have to purchase hundreds of vote tabulation machines or recruit and train thousands of volunteers to staff Election Day precincts.

Utah, Nebraska and California are now slowly adopting all-mail elections, and some East Coast and Republican-leaning states that have traditionally resisted mail voting are beginning to consider the idea. In Arizona’s Maricopa County, where a majority of the region’s 2 million voters choose to vote by mail, election chief Adrian Fontes talks about Election Day precincts as an antiquated idea.

More Mail Ballots

To be sure, mail voting is expected to increase in Florida given its popularity not only with voters but with campaigns and political parties, which encourage mail voting because they can easily track and solicit such voters. The Florida Democratic Party, which added nearly 1 million voters to the state’s absentee ballot program in 2018, has a goal of adding 700,000 more voters to the list this year. Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters, who helped run Donald Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign, also expects an uptick in conservative mail voters, who can sign up to receive mail ballots for four years at a time.

And that presents a problem for supervisors, since Florida’s laws weren’t built to accommodate an election system primarily run through the U.S. Postal Service.

“It’s the slowest ballot to process,” said Ion Sancho, a former Leon County election supervisor, who was called as an expert witness during November’s federal hearings on Florida’s absentee ballots. “No one seemed to be aware of that when they went to no-excuses ballots. They didn’t look at what the states with no-excuse ballots were providing to their elections. They didn’t do any of that. They just made the switch. It has consequences. And 2018 was that consequence.”

Counting Controversies

Consider what happened in November:

▪ Ballots dropped off or received by election offices on Election Day, Nov. 6, dramatically slowed down the process of counting votes in Broward County, which still had roughly 38,000 mail ballots not yet tabulated when staff called it a night early in the morning on Nov. 7. The pace of counting the ballots — which take longer to process because they must be removed from the envelope, verified in authenticity, and when damaged, replicated by election staff — led to allegations of ballot stuffing and voter fraud.

▪ Thousands of mail ballots had to be duplicated after being damaged during delivery. In Palm Beach County, where duplicated ballots became the subject of a Rick Scott campaign lawsuit and court order, the election office had to dedicate three teams of staffers to recreate more than 14,000 damaged ballots, according to office logs.

▪ Documents compiled as a result of lawsuits filed in the U.S. Senate race by incumbent Bill Nelson show that at least a third of the 32,492 invalid mail ballots cast in the midterms were dismissed because they missed a 7 p.m. election night deadline to be received by local election supervisors. Numbers reported to the state and provided to the Miami Herald in response to requests for public records show that more than 10,000 of these rejected ballots were postmarked before Election Day. Voters can request mail ballots up to six days before an election, which supervisors say is not enough time.

▪ Of those rejected ballots, election supervisors reported that at least 5,586 were tossed after canvassing boards determined that the signature on the envelope did not match the signature on record with the election supervisor. The percentage of rejected ballots ranges widely from county to county due to different standards, a problem an appeals court recently determined risks disenfranchising voters.

Close Elections

The number of rejected mail-in ballots reflects only a fraction of a percentage point when considering that more than 8 million votes were cast in the 2018 midterms. But it’s still larger than Rick Scott’s 10,033-vote margin of victory over Bill Nelson in the race for U.S. Senate.

“In Florida you have really close elections and those errors are more likely to make a difference,” said Mann, the Skidmore professor. “And because Florida is Florida, everybody looks at this and says, ‘Well, what did elections officials screw up this time?’ ”

North Carolina’s state elections board just ordered a new contest in a narrowly decided congressional race tainted by allegations of mail ballot tampering by a campaign consultant. In Miami, where ballot brokers are referred to as boleteras, illicit and clumsy efforts to spike absentee votes have over the last decade tanked an initial mayoral campaign by Miami’s current mayor and sent a former congressional chief of staff to jail.

Statistically, mail ballots are also more likely to be deemed invalid than a vote cast in person at a precinct. But voter fraud is the exception, not the rule, and states that automatically register voters and send them ballots in the mail have historically had higher levels of voter participation.

Stressing Supervisors

Meanwhile, regardless of any controversy, absentee voting is growing in popularity in Florida, stressing the state’s largest election offices.

In Miami-Dade County, nearly 270,000 of the 409,000 mail ballots distributed were returned and counted. Supervisor Christina White’s staff was roundly praised for handling a massive and “historic” workload without the problems seen in Broward and Palm Beach counties. But the simple act of removing so many ballots from their envelopes and verifying each signature was a stress on her staff.

Each envelope is opened by a machine and scanned so that the signature is uploaded into a database. Then White’s staff has to check the signature with one on file. If a first review of the signature by a trained and tested handwriting reviewer proves problematic, a supervisor is alerted. If that employee isn’t comfortable verifying the ballot, it goes to the canvassing board, a three-member panel in every county, responsible for overseeing the election count.

Excluding the process of registering mail voters and fielding inquiries about whether a ballot has been mailed out or received, the buildup of simple tasks compounds into an enormous workload during the vote tally that is heaped on top of an office that also runs two weeks of early voting and opens 783 Election Day precincts. To handle the election, White’s staff expands from 99 full-time staffers to 1,500 employees.

“It’s a very lengthy process,” White said of counting mail ballots. “It’s not one that happens quickly.”

Emergency Looming

Florida election officials and lawmakers generally view the state’s three-tiered system positively. “Voters like to have choices, and Florida provides a lot of choices,” said Donald Palmer, a former Florida election director who now sits as a U.S. Election Assistance Commissioner.

But in some counties, including Pinellas and Lee, more than half of the votes in the 2018 election were cast by mail. And a long view suggests that the time and effort involved in processing mail ballots is likely to grow as more voters choose to vote at home. Fontes, the Maricopa County recorder in Arizona, says Florida’s deadlines are way too short for the deluge of mail ballots coming in the future.

“No way. No way you can do it well,” said Fontes. “You’ve got an emergency looming, Florida. What are you going to do about it?”

Amber McReynolds, a former Denver election supervisor and current executive director of Vote At Home, says shifting now to a mail-based system would save Florida’s local election offices millions in costs associated with equipment, staffing and training, and help avoid chaos in the future as absentee voting continues to increase.

McReynolds says Colorado spent “one-tenth” of what it would have otherwise spent on new machines when it came time to upgrade voting equipment. Even then, McReynolds said that in Denver she had a staff of 2,500 in 2008. By 2016, it was 700.

McReynolds now spends her time crisscrossing the country, talking to election supervisors and campaigns about mail ballots, which she says are more “customer” friendly. McReynolds calls it “ballot delivery,” since most ballots are actually dropped off at secure boxes in grocery stores and at drive-thrus.

She believes it’s the future of American elections, even if it’s unlikely this year that Florida lawmakers will consider a move to an all-mail election.

“For Florida to get past the ghost of 2000 or the issues that happened this past year, they really need to dig down and say ‘What problems are we trying to solve here?’” said McReynolds. “ ‘How can we solve them most effectively?’ ”

-- this story was written by David Smiley and Caitlin Ostroff

Miami Herald staff writers Sarah Blaskey and Kyra Gurney, and McClatchy DC reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.This project was produced with the assistance of a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.