Start checking your mailboxes, Florida voters.
Beginning Thursday, county elections officials can start shipping out vote-by-mail ballots for the 2020 general election to more than 4.5 million Florida voters in the United States who have already requested to vote from the comfort of their homes.
Once received, the ballots can immediately be filled out and returned.
Already, more than 2,000 Floridians have returned their mail ballots, largely overseas voters and a smattering of residents who have stopped by elections offices for over-the-counter vote-by-mail ballots.
Vote-by-mail ballots have long been a key part of Florida’s elections landscape. But this year, with the specter of the coronavirus pandemic and increased national awareness about this voting option, there’s been a record surge in the numbers of Floridians requesting to vote this way.
Elections officials across the state have helped encourage the historic increase in mail voting. Some counties sent vote-by-mail ballot request forms to voters or have opted to pay for return postage for mail ballots for the first time.
But with this influx of new mail-ballot voters comes the concern that more people could make mistakes because they’re unaccustomed to voting this way.
“As we ramp up vote-by-mail, we have more inexperienced voters using it,” said Whitney Quesenbery, director of the Center for Civic Design, which offers guidance on designing ballots and other elections materials. Quesenbery noted that presidential elections already tend to bring in larger proportions of infrequent or new voters than other elections, including some voters who cast ballots only every four years.
Experts worry these new mail voters, in particular, may not know the rules around mail ballots, including the 7 p.m. deadline on Nov. 3 to get the ballots back to elections supervisors.
Other issues, such as a voter forgetting to sign their ballot or having a signature mismatch compared to the one on file, could also put a ballot at risk of not being counted.
Under Florida law, if a mail ballot is not accepted due to such signature issues, the county elections office is required to notify the voter and provide an opportunity to “cure” the issue so the vote can be counted. Mail ballot envelopes include spaces for voters to put their contact information in the event of such an issue. A vote-by-mail cure affidavit must be submitted by 5 p.m. two days after the election.
More than 18,000 mail ballots were not counted in March, during Florida’s much-lower-turnout presidential preference primary, the majority of which because they arrived too late.
And an analysis by University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith for Politico found that about 35,000 mail ballots cast in last month’s primary ended up not getting counted.
Smith has estimated that more than 100,000 mail ballots in Florida’s general election could end up going uncounted. Smith’s UF colleague, Michael McDonald, has previously estimated that 1 million people across the country could see their ballots rejected.
The numbers, while small relative to the number of votes cast, could prove crucial in a state known for razor-thin margins.
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Analyses show that there’s variation by county in the rate of mail ballots that get rejected or go uncounted. And those uncounted ballots are disproportionately likely to come from younger and first-time voters, as well as Black and Hispanic voters.
Smith said that voters putting a consistent signature on their ballot this year is key. “Signature mismatch could be the hanging chad of 2020,” Smith said.
Elections officials are also stressing that voters fill out and return their ballots early to make sure there’s adequate time for them to be received and for any potential issues to be addressed.
Adding to the challenge this year are concerns about the U.S. Postal Service. That service saw a decrease in the percentage of first-class mail being delivered on time — including in Florida — after Louis DeJoy took over as postmaster general over the summer and began making some operational changes. However, DeJoy has said that election mail will be prioritized.
In Florida, voters can opt to return their ballots to their county elections office or at designated drop boxes if they don’t want to put their ballots in the mail. Hours, days and locations of drop boxes vary depending on the county, although the boxes are required at early voting sites during early voting and at county elections offices.
Hillsborough County’s Supervisor of Elections Office said it plans to send more than 355,000 mail ballots to voters Thursday. Pinellas County’s elections office is scheduled to mail out its domestic ballots next Tuesday. State law requires domestic ballots to be mailed between 40 and 33 days prior to an election.
North Carolina was the first state to begin mailing out ballots for the general election, kicking off the process on Sept. 4. More than half of the states have either already sent or are currently sending mail ballots to their voters.
More than 4.7 million Floridians have already requested mail ballots this year. About 46 percent have come from Democrats, about 31 percent from Republicans, and the remainder from voters from other parties or no party affiliation.
It is not too late to request a mail ballot. Voters can request a ballot be mailed to them up until 10 days before the election. Voters can also 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.)
Early in-person voting starts as early as Oct. 19 in many counties.
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?
HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.
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