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Florida’s election may hinge on mail ballot signatures: ‘The hanging chad of 2020’

In a normal election year, these ballots rarely take center stage. In 2020, if the presidential election stays as close as the polls indicate and there is a recount, uncounted ballots may play a significant role, and potentially draw a legal challenge.
A Republican observer looks at a ballot during a hand recount, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill, Fla.
A Republican observer looks at a ballot during a hand recount, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill, Fla.
Published Oct. 16, 2020
Updated Oct. 16, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — If Florida faces another uncomfortably close presidential election on Nov. 3, rejected vote-by-mail ballots could spell trouble.

The unprecedented spike in demand for mail-in ballots spawned by the coronavirus has led to a subsequent surge in the number of ballots that are poised to be rejected — either because they arrive past the election night deadline or are invalidated because they have a problem with the signature.

This election cycle, Florida’s election supervisors have mailed a record 5.6 million ballots to voters as of Thursday and have had 2 million of them returned and processed. In 2016, there were 2.7 million mail ballots cast.

Of the ballots returned so far, 11,637 — or 0.56 percent — were flagged as invalid because they either were missing the required signature or had some other voter-caused error, like a mismatched signature, according to University of Florida election expert Dan Smith.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg,'' said Smith, who has been studying Florida’s vote-by-mail system for the last eight years. “Thousands more mail ballots will arrive in the coming days, cast by eligible voters.”

In a normal election year, these ballots rarely take center stage but, in 2020, if the presidential election stays as close as the polls indicate and there is a recount, uncounted ballots may play a significant role, and potentially draw a legal challenge.

"I could certainly see the mismatched signature as the hanging chad of 2020,'' Smith said.

He is referring to the infamous 2000 election, when the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore hinged on a massive recount of punch card ballots. Ballots with incompletely punched holes and dangling particles of paper known as “hanging chads” were not counted and weeks of lawsuits followed.

In 2020, the number of invalid ballots flagged for rejection already exceeds the number of votes that decided the 2018 U.S. Senate race, when Republican Gov. Rick Scott defeated Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson by fewer than 10,000.

Voters have until Thursday, Nov. 5 — two days after the election — to fix or “cure” an error if their ballot is rejected and send the correction to their elections office to have their vote count. But Smith sees it as a pandemic-era test for the resiliency of our election systems.

"We’ll see how responsive county election staff are at reaching out to these voters so that they may cure them and have them count,'' he said.

Blacks, Hispanics and young voters

Some groups of voters could be impacted more than others.

Smith’s research shows that Black and Hispanic voters, younger voters, voters who have not registered with any party, and first-time vote-by-mail voters will have their ballots rejected at significantly higher rates in Florida than other voters.

Importantly, Smith said, although some groups of voters are having their ballots flagged more often than others, the rejection rate is not consistent across Florida’s 67 counties because of the state’s decentralized voting system.

But it suggests "a non-uniformity in the way local election officials verify these ballots,'' Smith wrote in an August 2020 report published with Michael C. Herron of Dartmouth College and analyst Anna Baringer of Catalist LLC.

"You have counties where it might be that 3 percent of Black voters have their signatures rejected and other counties where among the Black population that’s voting by mail, it’s less than half of 1 percent‚'’ said Smith, who obtains the data from political sources because it is not now publicly available.

“You can’t convince me that a voter crossing the Sunshine Skyway one way or the other becomes more able to vote by mail because of some intrinsic qualities of race or age, or party. I can’t possibly explain it.”

The most common mistake is that voters forget to sign the envelope. Of the 2 million ballots cast by Thursday, there were 8,121 ballots flagged for missing a signature, Smith found. Another 3,516 had voter-caused error, such as a mismatched signature or other problem.

As of Thursday, Hillsborough County had 436 ballots with missing signatures of the 155,072 ballots it has processed, according to Smith’s analysis. Pinellas County had 65 ballots with missing signatures of the 125,826 ballots it had reviewed and another 426 with a voter error.  Pasco County had just 100 with missing signatures but 460 were returned with a voter error, and Hernando had 156 with missing signatures but only one with a voter error.

Supervisor discretion

In Florida, anyone can request a mail ballot without providing a reason, but there are three essential rules they must follow if they want the ballot to count:

▪ It must arrive in the elections office by 7 p.m. on election night.

▪ The envelope must be signed and dated.

▪ And the signature must match the signature on file with the supervisor of elections.

Because of Florida’s decentralized voting system, the state sets the policy and 67 different supervisors of elections implement it. But the lack of uniformity in the way ballots are being rejected could raise new questions about how uniformly applied are the state’s election laws.

Mailed-in ballots differ from in-person voting in that they don’t rely on picture IDs to identify people but depend on signatures validated without the voter present. When they don’t match they can be rejected. Voters have until 5 p.m. two days after the election to “cure” their ballots. If they don’t respond, it will be up to the canvassing board to count it or throw it out.

Florida law requires that each county’s three-member canvassing board, usually two county officials and the supervisor of elections, have the final say in which ballots get counted.

But the real sleuthing happens by staff, many of them who have less than four hours of annual training in handwriting analysis to help them detect a forged signature from a real one.

When the ballot arrives at the elections office in 46 of the state’s 67 counties, workers feed the ballot through a high-speed scanner to verify the signatures, comparing a scan of the signature on the ballot envelope to a scan of the signature on file with the elections supervisor.

In smaller counties, elections staff manually processes signatures on return envelopes, forwarding those with suspected problems to the canvassing board for review. In four counties, Broward, Manatee, Osceola and Seminole, the ballots are scanned and a software-based program does the initial comparison of the signatures.

If the signature doesn’t appear to match, the worker cannot reject the signature but refers it to a manager for a second pass. If there still is no match, the office sends a letter to the voter to let them sign an affidavit and provide proof of their identification and certify a new signature. The office will try to contact the voter using the information the voter has given to the supervisor when they signed the outside of the ballot but many counties do it differently.

Even experts in signature examination suggest the job requires a level of expertise that is not offered and likely impractical for election officials.

If this were a court of law, a forensic examiner would verify the signature by comparing it to other examples of a person’s handwriting samples, said Jim Josey, a forensic documents examiner based in Hawaii.

"You can’t train someone to be an expert in two to four hours,'' he said. “But it’s the only way we can do it now.”

County differences

Because the counties keep their own databases on vote-by-mail ballots, how they contact voters and how successful they are at reaching them to fix an error, it is up to each supervisor to decide how vigorously to pursue a fix.

"It’s really difficult to compare across the state, because each county has their own internal database and frankly, they don’t make them available,'' Smith said.

The Times/Herald spoke to five supervisors of elections and each had a slightly different approach to rejecting ballots. Each conceded it is a process that is inevitably subjective.

In Miami-Dade County, which has mailed more than 611,000 ballots and received about 150,000, the canvassing board has already begun meeting to sort out which ballots to accept and which to notify voters to cure.

For example, the board met Thursday to review 417 ballots, said Christina White, Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections, and 350 of them had signature discrepancies, she said.

"At the end of the day, you as a canvassing board member have a discretion and, you know, the discretion is what do you think the right thing to do is,'' she said.

Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer said the decision is often an easy call.

"I gotta tell you, the signatures that are rejected, they absolutely don’t look anything like what we have on file,'' he said. And when it comes to notifying late voters who get it wrong, it’s often a long shot.

"People that either turn their ballot in on Election Day or the day before, we’ve got a short amount of time to get in touch with them and they just usually don’t respond,'' he said.

In Pinellas County, where elections officials there have long encouraged voters to vote by mail, 55 percent of all Pinellas ballots cast in the 2018 general election were cast by mail. Julie Marcus, the supervisor of elections, said the approach by her canvassing board is to “look for ways to accept the ballot versus looking for ways to reject it.”

"The case law says, in the absence of fraud, you shall accept the ballot,'' she said.

Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett noted that supervisors and canvassing boards are all required to have handwriting detection training and that “just about everybody who signs something, unless they just really scribble, you can normally find something that’s the same.”

He said they are trained to break down the parts of the signature, compare the first initial and other distinctions. But, Bennett conceded, “There is no consistency other than the fact we’ve had some sort of training.”

Secretary of state says she’s ‘very confident’

Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the state’s election system, said she is confident that the laws in place sufficiently protect voters from arbitrary decisions.

"We know that our elections officials all had access to thorough and uniform training on how to conduct that process, so I am very confident that our supervisors of election are prepared to meet that challenge, and also to ensure that all voters are treated equally,'' she said this week.

While ballots cast in person are rarely invalidated, Smith’s studies have found that about 1 percent of all mail ballots were rejected statewide in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.

In 2016, voters between 18 and 21 were eight times more likely to have their vote by mail ballots rejected than were voters who were 65 or older. Voters under 30 years old cast just 9.2 percent of all mail ballots four years ago, but they accounted for nearly 31 percent of all rejected ballots.

Smith and his colleagues from Dartmouth College and the University of Georgia studied voting patterns in the 2016 and 2018 general elections as well as the 2020 presidential primary and found what they called the “inexperience penalty.”

Reliable voters with experience voting in person who voted for the first time by mail had twice as much chance of having their ballot rejected as someone who was used to voting by mail, the researchers concluded in a soon-to-be published paper.

The pattern was the same regardless of party or demographic breakdown, Smith said.

As of Oct. 13, he concluded:

▪ Hispanic voters account for 11.9 percent of all the statewide valid vote-by-mail ballots but were responsible for more than 26 percent of all ballots missing a signature and more than 15 percent of all those with a voter-caused error.

▪ Black voters account for 10.8 percent of all the statewide valid vote-by-mail ballots but make up nearly 22 percent of those flagged for a missing signature, and nearly 14 percent of all those with a voter-caused error.

▪ White voters account for 70.87 percent of all ballots returned that have been deemed valid ballots and of the ballots with a signature error only 61 percent were from white voters and only 42 percent of the ballots with a voter-cause error came from white voters.

After eight years of research into Florida’s vote-by-mail system, Smith has ruled out bias by supervisors as a contributing factor in the rejected ballots but with a “society full of implicit bias, that could play a role.”

He has some theories, however. Younger voters, for example, may have changed their signatures from when they preregistered at 16 to when they signed a ballot at 18 or 21. For Hispanic voters, Smith has found that cultural aspects may play a role. For example, he discovered names that include hyphens or apostrophes were more likely to be rejected.

Fixing mistakes

The other weak link in the system, Smith said, is what he called a “haphazard” cure process that is not only inconsistent county to county but also gives members of the military, their dependents, and Florida registered voters residing overseas or out of state presumably less of an opportunity to fix errors on their flagged mail ballots than it does in-state voters.

State law requires that supervisors send any voter whose ballot has been flagged with a mistake a letter that includes an affidavit and instructions on how to cure that signature difference. They also provide a prepaid return-postage envelope.

"Some supervisors have processes in place that voters have a better opportunity of having their signature count,'' Smith said. “If supervisors are not in a timely fashion, making their best effort to reach those voters who have problems with their returned ballots that are on time I can see legal challenges for that ahead.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

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