Minorities and young voters in Florida had ballots rejected at higher rates in 2020, study finds

“What is going on in that process?” University of Florida professor Dan Smith wondered.
An election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections in Doral.
An election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections in Doral. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published March 9, 2021|Updated March 9, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Mail ballots submitted by minority voters and young people were initially rejected at a higher rate than those of other groups in Florida’s 2020 presidential election, but most were able to resolve the errors, a new study by University of Florida professor Dan Smith found.

Younger voters were more than three times as likely as older voters to have their ballots initially rejected for signature issues, such as not including a signature on the outside of their ballot or the signature not matching the one on file with the county elections supervisor, according to the study.

And racial and ethnic minority voters who cast vote by mail ballots were over 60 percent more likely than white voters to have their ballots initially rejected. The rejection rates were inconsistent across the state’s 67 counties, however, indicating that the problems were not necessarily the fault of the voters.

“Why were these ballots cast by younger voters or Black and Hispanic voters being flagged for rejection at a much higher rate?” Smith wondered. “What is going on in that process?”

The study, which Smith performed on behalf of the voting rights group All Voting is Local, looked at the 4.6 million vote by mail ballots received by county elections officials by the Nov. 3, 2020 deadline.

More than 47,000 of those mail ballot envelopes were initially flagged for rejection due to a problem. Of those, more than 34,000 domestic, non-military voters were able to fix their signatures using the state’s affidavit “cure” process, which allows Floridians a few days to fix the problem.

Smith said the report showed the state’s “cure” process is working. The percentage of voters whose votes by mail were never fixed, and therefore never counted, plummeted from about 1.2 percent in 2018 to just 0.28 percent in 2020.

Still, that rejection rate was twice as high as the rate for people who voted in person.

The report comes as Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers seek to tamp down on vote by mail voting, after record turnout across the nation contributed to President Donald Trump’s loss last year.

Although Florida’s election was widely considered a success, DeSantis has proposed tightening the rules around drop boxes and ballot harvesting, despite no evidence of fraud around those items last election. One bill moving through the Florida Senate this legislative session would require elections supervisors to erase all standing requests for mail-in ballots in 2022 and require voters to start over.

Related: Florida Republicans push limits on vote by mail

“They seem hell-bent on addressing non-issues fueled by misinformation to their base,” said Brad Ashwell, All Voting is Local’s Florida state director. “It’s all based on blatant lies and misinformation.”

Smith and Ashwell had recommendations for the Legislature and elections supervisors:

  • Allow voters to have 10 days, instead of two days, after Election Day to correct problems with their vote by mail ballot.
  • Allow vote by mail ballots to count as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, and received within 10 days of Election Day, instead of being received by Election Day.
  • Establish uniform guidelines and provide better training to validate signatures across the state’s 67 canvassing boards.

The report also exposes the inherent problems with relying on signatures to verify someone’s identity. Smith called signatures “antiquated,” and noted that some countries are using thumbprints to verify voters’ identities.

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Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, has a bill (House Bill 103) that would require voters include the last four digits of their Social Security number on their vote by mail ballot, although Ashwell noted that that idea could be problematic as well.

“There’s no reason we couldn’t use some biometric to vote in person or on an envelope,“ Smith said. “There’s gotta be a better way.”