Did mail delays lead to more late-arriving ballots? The opposite, Florida counties say

In Hillsborough County, 383 ballots so far have come in too late to be counted for the Nov. 3 election.
A collection of vote by mail ballots sit in bins before the canvassing mail-in and provisional ballots begins at the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections office, Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, 2514 N. Falkenburg Rd., on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020 in Tampa.
A collection of vote by mail ballots sit in bins before the canvassing mail-in and provisional ballots begins at the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections office, Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, 2514 N. Falkenburg Rd., on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 18, 2020|Updated Nov. 18, 2020

Florida voters had plenty of reasons to question the reliability of voting by mail in the Nov. 3 election. The U.S. Postal Service was delivering ballots at delayed speeds, and thousands of ballots were flagged for signature issues that disproportionately affect young and minority voters. With people voting by mail in record numbers due to COVID-19, rejected ballots had the potential to become Florida’s “hanging chads” of 2020.

But that hasn’t come to pass. In fact, early data from some of the state’s largest counties suggests efforts by local elections supervisors, voters and advocates helped drive down the number of ballots received after Florida’s 7 p.m. Election Day deadline.

Related: Florida's election may hinge on mail ballot signatures: 'The hanging chads of 2020'

In Miami-Dade County, elections officials told the Miami Herald that, as of Monday, 648 ballots had arrived after the deadline, meaning they won’t count in the general election. In the August primary, even though about 250,000 fewer mail ballots were cast, 4,691 ballots arrived after the deadline — more than seven times as many as in November.

Suzy Trutie, the deputy supervisor of elections for Miami-Dade, said she attributes the low number of late ballots to the department’s education efforts about sending in ballots with time to spare. She also pointed to the use of drop boxes at early voting sites, which accounted for about one-third of all mail ballots cast in the county.

More straggler ballots may still arrive in the coming days — and Postal Service delays could determine just how many — but Miami-Dade officials say the 648 figure likely represents the majority of late arrivals.

In Hillsborough County, Florida’s fourth-largest county by population, about 383 ballots have been received after Nov. 3, versus 2,450 late-arriving ballots in the August primary.

In Duval County, home to Jacksonville, elections officials told the Herald that 280 ballots had arrived past the deadline. That’s compared with over 1,000 late ballots in the August primary, and nearly 600 in the 2016 general election.

Broward County reflects a similar trend. Elections spokesman Steve Vancore said Tuesday that 582 ballots had arrived after the deadline. In the August primary, that number was 3,163.

Vancore attributed the decline to drop boxes and education efforts, including a $450,000 grant for a digital marketing campaign to contact everyone in Broward who had requested a mail ballot.

“It was a full-throated, concerted effort to coordinate every possible medium to say, ‘Get them back early,’” he said.

Vancore added that a new approach for retrieving ballots from the Postal Service under Broward Supervisor of Elections Peter Antonacci likely prevented ballots from lingering at mail facilities past the deadline. On Nov. 2 and Nov. 3, Broward elections workers went twice a day to each of the 42 post offices in the county to pick up ballots, Vancore said, and also visited two mail processing centers in Broward and Miami-Dade.

“People had this understanding that the mail was going to be slow,” said Corryn Freeman, the state director of the Florida for All Education Fund, which promotes voting accessibility. “We definitely saw people turning in their ballots much quicker than they ever have.”

Mail delays prevented at least some ballots from arriving on time. In Hillsborough County, 46 ballots that were postmarked by Saturday, Oct. 31 — meaning they should have arrived by Election Day based on Postal Service standards — arrived after Nov. 3.

Still, the initial data suggests those numbers were outweighed by other factors, including the availability of drop boxes and many voters mailing their ballots weeks before the election.

“Everything was pretty smooth,” said Freeman, noting that most county supervisors of elections did “their due diligence” to assist voters. “It was a pretty solid election in Florida this cycle.”

Data provided by the Miami-Dade and Broward elections departments suggests not only a decline in late-arriving ballots, but also in the rate of ballots that were rejected for missing or mismatched signatures, among other issues.

Miami-Dade has historically had one of Florida’s highest rates of rejection. In the August primary, the county turned away 2.8 percent of all mail ballots, including those that arrived late, the third-highest rate in the state behind Lake and Seminole counties.

In the Nov. 3 election, Miami-Dade rejected just 1,901 ballots out of about 512,000 cast, officials said. When including the 648 late-arriving ballots, that’s a rejection rate of about 0.5 percent.

That figure is slightly lower than what the county reported to the state, which shows 2,344 rejected ballots, according to Dan Smith, a political science professor and elections expert at the University of Florida.

Still, that would mean a rejection rate of about 0.6 percent, well below Miami-Dade’s rate in the past several elections. (A Miami-Dade elections spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the discrepancy between the figures provided to the Herald and the state.)

In the 2016 general election, Miami-Dade rejected over 4,000 ballots. The biggest difference this time seemed to be efforts to “cure” ballots with signature issues, a process that allows voters to address problems with their ballots and prevent them from being rejected. In 2016, the county tossed nearly 1,400 ballots for signatures that didn’t match what was on file. In this month’s election, that number plummeted to 114.

Ballots rejected for missing signatures also dropped in Miami-Dade from 2,341 in the 2016 general election to 1,358 in 2020, despite the overall spike in mail ballots cast. Out of 4,052 affidavits the county received from voters seeking to cure their ballots, 3,805 were accepted, an elections spokesman said.

Voters have until two days after the election to cure ballots that are initially flagged for rejection.

Smith, the University of Florida professor, said it’s likely too early to perform a statewide analysis of late and rejected ballots because some counties haven’t reported complete data to the state. Smith’s past analysis found a statewide rejection rate of 1.2 percent in the 2018 general election and 1.0 percent in 2016.

Still, Smith said that if the data reported by Miami-Dade is accurate, the low rejection numbers are “remarkable.” It shows “the extraordinary effort of groups on the ground that assisted voters to cure their ballots,” he said.

Broward County, which typically has one of Florida’s lowest rejection rates for mail ballots, also saw low numbers this election. Vancore said Broward rejected only 223 ballots out of more than 474,000 cast, a rate of about 0.2 percent when including late arrivals. Broward’s rejection rate in the August primary was also 0.2 percent.

The low rejection rates may be connected to the decline in late-arriving ballots, Vancore said.

“When people return their ballots earlier, it gives us more time to cure them,” he said.

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