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Amid Florida recounts, frustration grows for those whose votes didn’t count

Across counties, states and even countries, some Floridians struggled to get ballots or cast votes this election.

As Florida's races for senator, governor and agriculture commissioner undergo recounts, David Kendall Casey, watching from Atlanta, feels even more annoyed.

The 24-year-old graduate student at Georgia State University said he wanted to vote. He checked in with his local elections office in Pinellas County and believed he had ordered a mail ballot. But it never arrived.

"It's literally mathematically getting more important as it gets closer," Casey said of his vote. He assumed his preferred candidate, Andrew Gillum, would win easily, but Gillum did not. The Democrat conceded, then didn't, and the race between him and Republican Ron DeSantis is undergoing a machine recount.

"This is exactly why I was super excited to vote this year," Casey said. "It makes you just so despondent about the process. … That power was sort of taken away from me."

David Kendall Casey, center, after registering to vote at a March for Our Lives rally with his family. [Photo courtesy David Kendall Casey]

Across counties, states and even countries, some Floridians struggled to get ballots or cast votes this election. They are not disengaged citizens, but people who wanted to participate but now feel let down by a complicated, imperfect vote-by-mail system.

They include college students, a Navy commander and out-of-state workers. Some made desperate travel — even by plane — to get back and ensure their voices were heard. But such dramatic measures were not an option for everyone.


CATCH UP: Multiple lawsuits filed in Florida over vote counting

Nilses Vera, 27, said she and her husband split time between Los Angeles and Tampa. They both requested mail ballots from Hillsborough County. His arrived, she said, but hers was apparently sent to an old address, even though she had changed her mailing information.

"It's such a close race that I feel like my vote really counted and it was missed, and that's disheartening," Vera said. She checked her mail often and recalls once coming upon a pamphlet from state Rep. Jackie Toledo.

"Frickin' Jackie Toledo can find (my house), but Hillsborough County cannot."

In New York City, Terner Papir, 27, a Miami-Dade voter, said elections officials told her by phone that her ballot was sent Oct. 30 or 31. She never got it.

"These are the first major elections that have more of an effect on our generation than on our parents'," said Papir, who added that she comes from a family of Cuban immigrants who value the right to vote. "It's even more frustrating in that sense."

Available data makes it impossible to determine exactly how many people requested but never received mail ballots. The Florida Division of Elections reported that as of Friday morning, about 867,000 had been sent out but not returned. Some people request multiple ballots, however, and the figure is not a good representation of how many residents did not vote.

The deadline to ask for mail ballots was 5 p.m. on the sixth day before the election, Oct. 31. Except for special ballots for military and overseas voting, they had to be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day to count.

The timeline can get tight, and voters put their faith in the U.S. Postal Service, which touts that it processes nearly 500 million pieces of mail daily. The Postal Service this year said it used new identifiers for ballots, to improve tracking, and had special tags on containers to identify mailed voting material. Since Election Day, the agency has been subject to unproven allegations that ballots were sitting in a mail facility in Opa-Locka, uncounted, but it's unclear if any of those were sent before polls closed.

When considering mail ballots, voters have to think not just of legal deadlines, but of the number of the days they want to give postal carriers to feel confident their ballots will make it in time.

Take the case of Will Kennedy, a college student around Chicago, who gave the Tampa Bay Times permission to look up his voter status online. It said his ballot was sent from Broward County on Oct. 31. The form would have had to go from there, to Illinois, then back again, in less than a week. But Kennedy, a former Times reporter, said he never even received it.

"It's really frustrating," he said. "This is the first midterm I would have been super excited about."

MORE: Former Florida Congressman: My vote wasn't counted because of signature law

Several out-of-state college students — a demographic that skews Democratic — said they found it difficult to participate in the election.
Lura Delaney, an 18-year-old who goes to school in Charleston, S.C., said her absentee ballot never arrived from Hillsborough County, but she was fortunate to have a fall break that coincided with the election and could return home to vote in person.

Her friend from Tampa, Maggie Musco, also 18 and a college student in Ohio, said she requested multiple absentee ballots and eventually had to one-day ship hers to ensure it made it to the elections office before the deadline. The rushed postage cost her $23.

"I know plenty of people who would not have gone through the effort that I did," Musco said. The first ballot she requested, she said, several weeks before the election, did not arrive in her mailbox until the day after polls closed.

Ed Handley, a 57-year-old Navy commander in Virginia who is registered to vote in Duval County, said he has voted absentee with no trouble before but did not receive a mail ballot this year.

"Every vote does count, as we have learned from the last election cycle," Handley said on Election Day. "There's an issue if one vote cannot be put in."

On Halloween, Dottie Eville, 63, tucked her absentee ballot into a big green envelope and paid $1.21 to ship it from Volusia County to Monroe County, where she is registered to vote. She figured it would take two, maybe three days, for her ballot to get across the state.

But it did not arrive until the following Thursday, two days after the election.

"My vote doesn't count now because the postal service took nine days to get it there," Eville said. "I asked for the absentee ballot, I filled it out, I mailed it in time because I wanted my voice heard. And it's been silenced."

The journey was far longer for the ballot of Jumana Dalal, 42, registered in Miami-Dade but living with her partner in Peru. The process, she said, was tangled from the start. The ballots she and her partner first received looked different. Eventually, they secured the right forms, but could not fax them back to the elections office, even after trying for several days.

So Dalal took a drastic step. She bought a plane ticket, $1,400, and flew back to Florida with their ballots.

"This had to go on a credit card," she said. "It was something that took away from a college fund, but the way that we sort of viewed it was that this was important enough to expend the resources for our kid's future. We are a multicultural lesbian family, and things are a little crazy right now."

In Miami, she said, she learned the elections office had an issue with its fax machine. A spokeswoman told the Times a server problem was resolved last Saturday and all faxes have since been received. Dalal said the office workers seemed overwhelmed.

She said she has worked on election monitoring in Asia and believes the voting offices in Florida have a number of problems, including understaffing and using archaic systems to receive ballots, too many of which are ultimately discarded. She called her voting experience "incredibly frustrating" and "eye-opening."

"It doesn't need to be this complicated," she said.

This story was written with reporting help from ProPublica, which this year has led a project called Electionland, examining the process of voting across the United States. The effort has included many local newsrooms, including the Tampa Bay Times. Find @ProPublica@Electionland or @TB_Times on Twitter or Facebook, or email if you had voting issues or other concerns around this election.