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More than 18,000 mail ballots not counted in Florida’s March presidential primary

The report from the national Healthy Elections project said the uncounted ballots came in late or had "defects" that prevented them being counted.

More than 18,000 Floridians who voted by mail in March’s presidential primary did not have their votes counted, according to an analysis done by a group of national elections experts and academics.

The numbers of uncounted mail ballots, while relatively small, could prove crucial come November in a state known for razor-thin margins and at a time when voters are migrating in greater numbers to mail ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Elections officials in Florida and elsewhere need “a massive education campaign” about how to properly navigate the mail ballot process, said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and the co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, which brings academics and elections administration experts together to discuss best practices to address the threat of the virus.

“We are in uncharted territory here,” Persily said. “Millions of voters are going to be voting in a way different than they have historically.”

The numbers of uncounted mail ballots made up only about 1.3 percent of the total mail ballots cast, according to the Healthy Elections project analysis. The organization found that younger and first-time voters, as well as Black and Hispanic voters, were more likely to have mail ballots that didn’t end up getting counted.

The report said that relying more on mail voting because of the coronavirus could compound existing disparities in uncounted ballots.

The youngest voters were most likely during the March presidential preference primary to have their ballots not counted, the analysis found, with 3.56 percent of mail ballots submitted by people aged 18 to 29 being rejected — nearly three times the overall rejection rate.

First-time voters had 2.54 percent of their mail ballots rejected, while 2.32 percent of black voters who voted by mail had their ballots go uncounted. Democrats were slightly more likely to have their mail ballots uncounted than Republicans.

While the data the Healthy Elections Project analyzed did not detail reasons why the ballots were not counted, the report did say that elections officials mentioned during interviews that the majority of the ballots were rejected because they arrived late — after the 7 p.m. deadline on Election Day. They said others were not counted because of a “defect,” such as an unsigned signature or signature mismatch.

”A very, very small percentage of vote by mail ballots aren’t counted, but nobody wants to be part of that small number,” said Gerri Kramer, spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office. She ticked off a list of things voters can do, such as requesting their mail ballot early and updating their signature on file with the elections office.

Susan Gill, supervisor of elections in Citrus County, said her office received a mail ballot from the March presidential primary in June. She said she reached out to the voter, worried that perhaps the ballot had gotten lost in the mail, but “no, she had just found it and had just mailed it in,” Gill said.

Persily said new voters and those who have not previously voted by mail may not understand all the instructions and rules that go with it.

“This is the election version of baptism by fire,” Persily said of the large numbers of voters expected to vote by mail for the first time come November.

Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who specializes in elections, has previously found that mail ballots are more likely to be rejected than ballots cast in person. His research has found that rejection rates varied widely by county, which he has said suggests non-uniformity in how county elections officials verify signatures and other details on mail ballots.

Brian Corley, supervisor of elections in Pasco County, said some counties label ballots that came in too late as ballots “not counted,” while others don’t, and that can explain some of the disparities. Corley said that, in the 2018 general election, 40 percent of his county’s 369 “rejected” ballots had been returned after the 7 p.m. on Election Day deadline.

Florida law recently changed to provide more time for voters to cure rejected mail ballots. It 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.

Related: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here's what you need to know

Unlike some other states, Florida has a long history of using the mail for voting. Roughly 30 percent of the people who voted in the 2016 and 2018 general elections voted by mail in Florida. During March’s primary the use of vote by mail surged to about 45 percent of the overall vote.

The Healthy Elections Project noted that mail ballots were the most common way of voting in the primary, surpassing both early voting and voting on Election Day.

Pinellas County is a leader in the use of mail ballots in the state; in the 2018 general election, more than half of its voters voted by mail. Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus said her office works hard to make sure instructions on the ballot envelope are clear and concise and that deadlines for returning ballots are prominently displayed. She said her office has seen a decrease in rejection rates year after year.

This year, Pinellas is increasing the number of mail ballot drop boxes from 15 to 23 so people can more easily return mail ballots without actually putting them in the mail.

She said mail ballots that go uncounted are easier to quantify than, say, a voter who shows up too late to a polling place, but both happen.

“The key to any process, whether its ensuring someone brings their ID to a polling place or going to the correct polling place or ensuring the voter returns their mail ballot in a timely manner... is you have to educate your voters on that process,” Marcus said.

Dan Helm, who is vying against Marcus for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections job this year, said Pinellas County has historically done a good job counting mail ballots.

Elections experts have noted that voters unfamiliar with mail ballots may need education not just on how to fill out and sign the mail ballot envelope but also how to fill out their ballots. One advantage to voting in person is that help is available if needed.

“One of the challenges with mail balloting is there is not a poll worker in front of you to help you with the process if you need help,” Persily said.

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