Study: Mail ballots have higher rejection rates and they vary widely by county

A new research report analyzed rejected mail ballots in the past two presidential elections in Florida.
A rejected mail ballot in Pinellas [Steve Bousquet - Tampa Bay Times]
A rejected mail ballot in Pinellas [Steve Bousquet - Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sept. 19, 2018|Updated Sept. 20, 2018

A study of Florida's past two presidential elections finds that mail ballots were more likely to be rejected than votes cast at early voting sites or on election day.

The study also found that mail ballots cast by youngest voters, blacks and Hispanics were much more likely to be rejected than mail ballots cast by white voters, and that those voters are less likely to cure problems with their ballots when notified by election supervisors than other voters.

The study also shows that rejection rates vary widely across the state.

The report was produced by Daniel Smith, chairman of the political science department at the University of Florida, on behalf of the ACLU of Florida, whose director, Howard Simon, cited the state's "uncertain history in election administration" in a conference call with reporters.

About 1 percent of all mail ballots cast are rejected and not counted. That's about 1 of 100 ballots cast by mail. Smith said that rate is about 10 times higher than for voters voting either at an early site or on election day.

"This rate is substantial. We're talking about tens of thousands of people," Smith said.

The statewide totals were nearly 24,000 ballots in 2012 and nearly 28,000 two years ago.

The main reasons why mail ballots are rejected are that a voter didn't sign the ballot envelope or that the voter's signature on the envelope did not match the voter's signature on file with the county elections office.

The report comes as voting by mail continues to expand in popularity in the nation's third-largest state. Two years ago, 29 percent of all ballots cast in the presidential election were cast by mail, or 2.7 million out of about 9.6 million ballots, and election experts say the rate may be higher in the November election.

Four percent of all mail ballots cast by voters age 18 to 21 were rejected, but only 0.5 percent of mail ballots were tossed out that were cast by voters age 65 and over, Smith's study found.

In 2012, African-Americans cast 9.4 percent of all mail ballots, but black voters cast 14 percent of all rejected mail ballots.

The rejection rates of mail ballots varied widely from county to county in 2016, the study found.

Smith noted that Pinellas, the county where voting by mail is promoted more than anywhere else, also had one of the lowest rejection rates in Florida in 2016, as noted below.

This chart shows Orange County had the highest rejection rate. Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles issued a statement Wednesday in response to the findings.

Shortly before the 2016 vote, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued an order requiring the state to direct counties to give voters a chance to fix a signature deficiency if they voted by mail. Walker said the laws governing voting by mail showed a "complete lack of uniformity."

Here's the state's directive on that issue.

Yet the rejection rates for mail ballots cast by blacks and Hispanics went up between 2012 and 2016, Smith noted.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued a statement saying that the agency's priority is ensuring that every vote is counted accurately, and it is the duty of the 67 election supervisors to carefully count all vote-by-mail ballots.

Smith's study included six specific recommendations to reduce the vote-by-mail rejection rates.