TALLAHASSEE — With a presidential primary right around the corner, many Florida voters are being told they must update their legal signatures to ensure that their absentee ballots will be counted.
Hundreds of thousands of voters have received letters from county elections supervisors urging them to fill out new voter registration forms or risk having their ballots rejected.
The practice of signature verification is becoming increasingly common as more Floridians vote by mail rather than at early voting sites or on election day. Now that the Legislature allows voting by mail for any reason, experts say it's inevitable that it will become the preferred way of casting ballots in Florida.
"You MUST complete the enclosed voter registration application and check the 'signature update' box so that we can update your voter registration record," reads a letter from Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley. "If you plan to vote by absentee ballot in an upcoming election, be sure to submit your signature update at least 15 days prior to the election."
Townsley sent letters to all 189,000 Miami-Dade voters who have absentee ballot requests on file. They were printed in English, Spanish and Creole and included return postage at a cost of about $100,000.
Double-checking signatures on absentee ballot envelopes is required by state law as a check against voter fraud in a state that has had serious problems with it.
When elections workers see a signature on an absentee ballot envelope that does not match the voter's signature on file, the ballot is set aside and reviewed by a three-member canvassing board that renders a final decision as to whether the ballot is counted.
After the election, supervisors must send letters notifying all voters whose ballots were rejected. The ratio varies from county to county, but it's usually less than one-tenth of 1 percent of absentee ballots cast.
In November 2014, out of a total of 6 million ballots cast, 1.9 million were by absentee, meaning nearly one of every three voters.
Across the state, elections supervisors regularly use social media and their official websites to remind voters that they need to have a current signature on file.
In Naples, Collier County Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards has a "signature update" page on her website that lists seven possible ways a signature might change over time. They include a name change, a hand injury or difficulty using an electronic signature pad at driver's license offices, where most people in Florida register to vote.
In Melbourne, Brevard Supervisor Lori Scott sent letters to more than 50,000 voters to verify their signatures before they cast absentee ballots. By including a stamp, she said the response rate was 59 percent — nearly twice as high as a mailing in 2010.
Scott said she noticed that her 88-year-old mother's signature had changed "dramatically" over time.
"This is a growing trend in our state," Scott said. "If there's a question with their signature, we'll give them an opportunity to update it."
In Lakeland, Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said a well-intentioned caregiver or spouse may sign an absentee ballot return envelope on behalf of a voter, which is illegal.
"They think it's okay to do that, but unfortunately, that ballot is not going to count because the voter didn't sign it," Edwards said.
Signature verification in Florida has been criticized in past years by liberal groups and individuals who see it as a deliberate barrier to voting.
"A new low in voter suppression," Gloria Shur Bilchik wrote on the liberal website OccasionalPlanet.org in 2012 after voters reported receiving letters urging them to update their signatures.
Not true, say Florida elections supervisors from both political parties.
"The only motivation supervisors of election have is to help their voters," said Supervisor Deborah Clark in Pinellas County, where her steady promotion has made voting by mail the most popular method in the county. Nearly 6 of every 10 people who voted in Pinellas in 2014 did so by mail.
Clark does not send mass mailings to voters. Instead, her employees will repeatedly call or write to individual voters when they see a suspect signature, as does the elections office in Hillsborough.
"There's a presumption that as one gets older, one's signature tends to be more different, and we do see that with some of our senior voters," Clark said. "What we see more often is that voters don't take the time to make a legal signature on their ballot return envelope. That's our biggest problem. People are in a hurry, and they will initial instead of writing their name."
Florida's statewide presidential preference primary election is March 15, but actual voting will start sooner.
Absentee ballots will be mailed to overseas and military voters by Jan. 30 and to Florida voters as early as Feb. 9. They can be canvassed or counted as early as March 1.
Once the counting of mailed ballots has begun, voters who cast absentee ballots will not be able to update their signatures for that election.
A voter who does not put any signature on an absentee ballot envelope has until 5 p.m. March 14 to fix that oversight by signing an affidavit.
The last day to register to vote in Florida's presidential primary is Feb. 16.
Voters can check their voting status, including absentee ballot requests, at yourvoteflorida.com, a state-run website.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.