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Absentee ballots can be helpful, and at times confusing

Absentee ballots often help elections run more smoothly. Voters get time to study choices at their leisure — a big advantage in a state where legislators adore mind-numbing referendums.

Absentee ballots also take the pressure off polling places. In this month's election, they accounted for 54 percent of Pinellas County's vote, which helped minimize Election Day precinct lines. In Miami-Dade, where 27 percent of the vote came in absentee, some polling places still had lines past midnight.

Still, absentee voting creates its own challenges, which can sow confusion, frustration and discontent. Nowhere was this more evident than this year in Pinellas, which pushes absentee voting more than any county.

By Monday morning, Nov. 5, about 300,000 absentee ballots had been requested but almost 90,000 had not been returned.

Many of those people would show up at their precincts on Election Day, wanting to vote in person. What if they already voted? What if they had just turned in the absentee ballot, then hustled over to the precinct to vote again?

The county has a system to prevent such double voting but it can be unwieldy, said Seminole resident Karen Jodal, who served as a poll worker in Precinct 311.

Jodal, 61, figured she signed in 150 to 200 people on Election Day, using a printout of registered voters. About 30 had red lines next to their names indicating that they had requested an absentee ballot.

Some people just wanted to drop off their ballot, Jodal said. That was not allowed because Pinellas has only 14 official dropoff locations.

Some wanted to use their absentee ballot as cheat-sheet while voting in person. That wasn't allowed because poll workers must confiscate the absentee ballot before handing over an in-person ballot.

More than half arrived without their absentee ballot, Jodal said.

"They would say, 'I never got one,' or 'I must have thrown it away,' or 'I forgot.' "

Jodal then would fill out a form and refer those people to a nearby elections clerk. The clerk would telephone the elections office, which could monitor absentee returns on a master database. If the ballot had shown up, the voter was turned away at the precinct. If the voter cast a ballot at the precinct, any absentee ballot that showed up later would be rejected.

All the double-checking "would slow down the line for sure,'' Jodal said. "Sometimes the clerk would sit on the phone for 10 minutes to get through because they were having so many calls.''

Voters were annoyed, Jodal said. "One lady was pregnant and said 'I think I am having contractions. I've been on my feet all day.' ''

Foreseeing the polling place slowdowns that 90,000 outstanding absentees ballots might create, Pinellas officials attempted a courtesy telephone call that Monday, using a California robocall service. The recorded call reminded people to either drop off their ballots at official locations or bring them to the polling place if they intended to vote in person.

Because voters usually do not provide telephone numbers when they register, many of the 90,000 could not be reached. But elections officials did whip up a list of 38,702 and began dialing Monday afternoon. In a now-infamous tangle of software and user error, 12,525 calls mistakenly spilled over to Election Day, reminding people they had until "tomorrow'' to vote.

Elections officials said the robocalls did not benefit any particular party. A Tampa Bay Times sampling of robocall data confirmed that.

But the calls caused consternation all over the county and quickly mushroomed into caustic nationwide commentary about Florida election prowess.

Kathie Spitzer, 55, of St. Petersburg, was incensed and suspicious when the phone rang Tuesday morning. She had not requested an absentee ballot and, in fact, had voted a week earlier with no trouble.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, voter suppression.' '' said Spitzer, a Democrat. "With everything going on in this election, I am very suspicious of everything.''

Under Florida law, someone who requests an absentee ballot will automatically keep them through two general election cycles. But that's not why Spitzer got the robocall. She should not have been on the list, elections supervisor spokeswoman Nancy Whitlock said. That was just a mistake.

The biggest problem with absentee ballots is that Florida will not let voters correct mistakes or clarify misunderstandings, said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith.

In the August primary, almost 2 percent of absentee ballots were rejected, Smith said. People fail to sign the outside of the return envelope. A signature will vary too much from the one on file.

By Florida law, a person is deemed to have to voted as soon as the absentee ballot arrives at the elections office — whether the ballot is accepted or not. Since some counties provide online ballot tracking, some voters realize weeks before the election that their vote will not count. But they cannot do anything about it.

Orange County, which had about a 1 percent rejection rate in this election, had redesigned its return envelope, making the signature box bigger with red ink and arrows pointing to it in English and Spanish. Still, 301 voters were disenfranchised because they failed to sign.

Realizing her error, one woman went to her precinct and cast a provisional ballot, then attended the canvassing board meeting to plead her case. "They had to tell her no,'' supervisor Bill Cowles said. "She understood. She took personal responsibility."

Original signatures on voting rolls can be decades old and not appear to match a current one, said Smith. People suffer strokes and cannot write well. Teens can pre-register as early as 16, but then go to the polls at age 21 with a markedly different signature.

Evaluating signatures is a subjective decision that varies among canvassing boards.

"I talked to a judge who served on a canvassing board in Miami-Dade in the 1980s,'' Smith said. "A member of Congress had a stroke and submitted a ballot. The signature didn't match but the two other members of the canvassing board approved the ballot, saying 'That's clearly who he is' and they accepted the ballot.''

The law should change, Smith said, requiring supervisors to make a good-faith effort to notify voters when a ballot has been rejected, then let them vote at the polls.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, agreed. Last week, he and others called for more early voting days and other election reforms.

Rejected absentee ballots "are something we really need to take a look at,'' Rouson said. "If there is a loophole, close it. If there is a safety mechanism to put in place, do it.''

Craig Latimer, the incoming Hillsborough elections supervisor, said absentee ballots allow his office to deploy workers more efficiently. They process returned ballots as they come in, with little downtime. At polling places, uncertain turnout makes staffing levels more of a guessing game.

Pinellas County's final canvassing report was not available late last week because military ballots were still being processed. Supervisor Deborah Clark declined to provide preliminary numbers of rejected absentee ballots.

Hillsborough's rejection rate as of Friday was 755 out of 171,171 absentee ballots cast, Latimer said. That's less than one-half of 1 percent.

Absentee voters can protect their ballots by making sure their signature on file at the election office is current, Latimer said.

"Your signature can be an X,'' he said. "But it better look like the X you put on your ballot.''