Voting by mail is no new phenomenon in Florida. But it’s getting renewed attention amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent weeks, local elections supervisors across the state have been promoting this option as a safe alternative to in-person voting, with some counties even sending mail ballot request forms to all registered voters who haven’t already requested mail ballots. That includes Pinellas County, which sent forms to about 390,000 active registered voters who did not already have mail ballot requests on file.
Hillsborough County, seeing the interest in people ordering from restaurants amid the pandemic, launched an initiative with a handful of restaurants to include flyers promoting vote by mail with takeout and delivery orders. It also sent 660,000 ballot request forms to voters who hadn’t already requested mail ballots.
But at the same time, the voting method has become suddenly more controversial and partisan nationwide as President Donald Trump and others have attacked the expanded use of mail ballots.
Some elections officials say some of the rhetoric has caused confusion about Florida’s longstanding mail voting system.
Here are some of the basic facts about how to request a mail ballot in Florida and how the process works.
How do I request a vote-by-mail ballot?
Voters can call or visit their county supervisor of elections office, fill out a written request and send it in, or fill out a request form online. Each county elections office in Florida has a link to an online vote-by-mail request form.
Voters will need to provide their name, address and date of birth. If the request is made in writing, they will also need to provide their signature.
What’s the difference between a vote-by-mail ballot and an absentee ballot?
Nothing. In Florida, the term “absentee ballot” was replaced by “vote-by-mail ballot” in state statutes in 2016 because it more accurately reflects the fact that Florida does not require voters to have an excuse (such as being absent) to vote by mail.
Do I need an excuse to vote by mail?
No. Beginning in 2002, Florida began allowing anyone who wants a mail ballot to request one. You do not need to be out of town or sick or have any other excuse to request a ballot.
How long does my request stand?
In general, requests for mail ballots stand through the calendar year of two general elections. That means that if you requested vote-by-mail ballots ahead of the 2016 general election, you may need to make the request again unless you’ve already said you want to continue voting by mail.
Is there a deadline to request a mail ballot?
Voters who want a ballot mailed to them must request one by no later than 5 p.m. on the 10th day prior to an election. However, voters can choose to pick up a mail ballot from their county elections office through the day before the election. (Voters can also request a mail ballot on Election Day in the event of an emergency.)
How do I check to make sure I have a request for a mail ballot on file?
Voters can call their county elections office or check online to see whether their request for a mail ballot is listed on file.
Some counties across the state have noted issues with requests for mail ballots being mailed to them without key information, such as a signature.
Some supervisors in recent days have noted specific concerns with the national nonprofit Center for Voter Information, which sent out some mailers with a mail-ballot request form that did not include a line for the voter’s signature.
Page Gardner, who founded the Center for Voter Information and related organization the Voter Participation Center, said the forms that were missing a signature line went to about 311,000 Florida voters and made up only a small amount of the 2.3 million vote-by-mail request forms her organization sent out in the state.
Michael Bennett, supervisor of elections in Manatee County, said his office has received quite a few mailed requests without the required signature. “We got in our office about 400 just today, and most of them are wrong,” he said. “I don’t have the time or the staff to try to chase down and contact these people.”
Gardner said the forms still stated that a signature was required and said many voters who used those forms signed them. She said her organization has reached out to all of the voters who received that version of the form. She stressed that her organization is doing what it can to help more people be able to vote by mail during the pandemic.
Lori Edwards, supervisor of elections in Polk County, said voters who are unsure whether they have a mail ballot request on file should call the office or fill out another request online. “If it’s a duplicate, it’s a duplicate,” she said. “It’s not going to hurt anything.”
How many people vote by mail?
Roughly 30 percent of the people who voted in the 2016 and 2018 general elections voted by mail in Florida. During the 2020 presidential preference primary, which came amid the coronavirus pandemic, the use of vote by mail surged to about 45 percent of the overall vote.
After I register to vote by mail, when would I get my ballot?
County elections offices will begin mailing ballots to domestic voters beginning July 9 for the August primary.
What if I request a mail ballot but want to vote in person?
Voters who request a mail ballot can still choose to vote in person instead, elections officials say.
A voter choosing to instead vote in person should bring their mail ballot with them to the voting site and hand it in. Election workers will mark the mail ballot as canceled and provide the voter with a regular ballot.
If poll workers cannot confirm that a voter has not already voted by mail, the voter may have to vote by provisional ballot, meaning the canvassing board would decide later whether to count the vote.
Many county elections officials are encouraging people to request a mail ballot so they have options about how they want to vote in August and November.
“We want them to request the ballot so they at least have it,” said Trish Robertson, public relations officer for the Collier County Supervisor of Elections.
When would I need to return my completed mail ballot?
Mail-in ballots must be received – not postmarked – by 7 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted. (There are some groups challenging this in court right now, pushing for an extension to when mail ballots can be received to be counted.)
A May 29 letter from the U.S. Postal Service about election mail noted that while most first-class mail is delivered in 2-5 days, “voters should mail their return ballots at least one week prior to the due date established by state law.”
“We tell people, two weeks prior to the election, you need to be getting it in,” said Mark Andersen, supervisor of elections in Bay County. He said that gives time for any delays in mailing and for more time for people to cure any issues, like a mismatched signature, that could stop the ballot from being counted.
The U.S. Postal Service will play perhaps an even more critical role in this election as more ballots are expected to be cast by mail.
But Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and the co-director of the Healthy Elections project, said it’s unclear under “what sort of strain the post office will find itself come the fall,” particular given the organization’s funding woes.
That adds even more weight to exhortations for voters to request their mail ballots early and to return them well before Election Day.
Voters not wanting to put their filled-out ballots back in the mail can drop off their completed ballots at designated county spots. Again, the deadline is 7 p.m. on Election Day.
Do I need to go out and get stamps just to vote this way?
Only some counties in Florida provide return postage on vote-by-mail ballots, although a growing number are opting to do so amid the coronavirus pandemic. For those that don’t, postage costs can vary.
Both Pinellas and Pasco counties are starting to pay for return postage amid the pandemic, while Hillsborough County has already been paying for return postage for a number of years. Hernando County does not currently pay for return postage for mail ballots.
(A number of groups have sued in federal court, trying to make changes to Florida’s voting system. One of the changes the groups are calling for is for all return postage to be paid for mail ballots.)
But while the U.S. Postal Service stresses that appropriate postage be affixed, it has long had a policy of not delaying election mail due to insufficient postage. In many cases when that happens, the post office will deliver the mail and charge the county elections office.
I’ve heard about problems with mail ballots not arriving or not being counted. How would I know whether my ballot was counted?
After putting their filled-in ballot in the mail, voters can track online to see whether their county supervisor of elections office has received their mailed ballots.
If a mail ballot is not accepted, due to a signature mismatch or other issue, the elections office is required to notify the voter and provide the voter with an opportunity to “cure” the issue so it can be counted. A vote-by-mail cure affidavit must be submitted by 5 p.m. two days after the election.
Wait, my signature has to match what?
Elections officials look at the signature on the mail ballot envelope and compare it to the signature on file to see if it matches. That makes it important for voters to make sure the signature on file is updated.
Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who specializes in elections, has found that mail ballots are more likely to be rejected than ballots cast in person, and that the main reasons mail ballots were rejected were because of missing or mismatched signatures.
Smith has found that rejection rates varied widely by county and often disproportionately affect younger people and minorities.
Florida law recently changed to provide more time for voters to cure their mail ballots and requires elections officials to try to reach the voter by phone, email, text message and usually by mail to let them know if their ballot was rejected so they can try to cure the issue. The mail ballot envelope was modified to include spaces for voters to put their contact information.
Why is President Trump against expanded voting by mail?
President Trump, who himself has voted by mail, has repeatedly attacked expanded use of mail-in ballots, alleging a “tremendous potential for voter fraud.” He’s threatened on Twitter to withhold federal funding for Michigan for its decision to send absentee voter applications to all registered voters.
He’s also tweeted that California’s plan to send all voters in the state mail-in ballots for the general election would result in a “rigged election.” He argued it would result in mail boxes being robbed and ballots being fraudulently signed. Twitter later added labels to those tweets, saying they contained “potentially misleading information about voting processes.”
Trump has said he thinks mail voting should be reserved for those who have an excuse to need to do so.
Trump has also made comments that appear to signal a concern that greater access to voting by mail could increase turnout and aid Democrats, who have historically been less likely to vote by mail in Florida and in some other states.
Some elections supervisors have noted instances where Trump’s comments about mail voting have actually stopped voters from signing up for mail voting in recent weeks. For instance, the Broward County supervisor of elections office has had a handful of people who had previously registered to vote by mail call and say they want to remove their request for a mail ballot after hearing the president say it was a fraudulent voting method, said Steve Vancore, a spokesman for the office.
How common is fraud?
Elections experts say that fraud related to mail ballots is more common than it is with in-person voting, but say it’s still uncommon.
Experts note that voting fraud in general is rare in the United States. Some point out that states that have all-mail elections have reported very little fraud.
Still, there have been examples across the country of voter fraud related to mail ballots over the years. And the Times has noted that some strict requirements used in other states on mail ballots are not in place in Florida.