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Rumors, myths and half-truths cloud Florida's election

Vote early and often? That's another myth. Just once, please. [AP Photo | Lynne Sladky]
Vote early and often? That's another myth. Just once, please. [AP Photo | Lynne Sladky]
Published Nov. 2, 2016

On his Facebook page, Mike Ertel has a name for it: "Debunk the bunk."

Day after day, this elections chief in suburban Orlando works to shatter the latest myth about supposed skullduggery in the Florida election.

If I skip the race for President, the rest of my ballot won't count. False: That's an under-vote, and it's perfectly legal.

If my vote counts, I should be given a receipt. False: Your "I Voted" sticker is your receipt, so wear it proudly. Remember, it's a secret ballot, not Publix.

Mail ballots are counted only if it's real close. False: Those are the first ballots to be counted.

"Regardless of what your friends from up north claim, mail ballots are always counted, regardless of how close the race is," writes Ertel, the Seminole county election supervisor, on Facebook. "Any other mail ballot bunk you've heard about that I can debunk or address?"

Maybe it's a lingering hangover from the recount that convulsed the state in 2000.

Perhaps it's the tone of this coarse and deeply divisive race, with Donald Trump warning about a "rigged" election, or the sense that the stakes are so high next Tuesday.

Whatever it is, people in Florida seem more suspicious than ever about the election.

In Tallahassee, more than 15 state workers handle voter fraud and voter assistance hot lines. They fielded more than 550 phone calls Monday.

In Jacksonville, a self-appointed group of a dozen election watchdogs, including two African-American pastors, has bought newspaper ads, promising $5,000 rewards for voter fraud tips that end in convictions.

They call themselves Florida Citizens for Honest Elections.

Their spokesman, Readus Cordell Smith III of Palm Beach Gardens, cited recent cases of suspected voter fraud in Florida, all of which were widely reported in the news media, including two women arrested last week in Miami.

"If we stop only one bad guy, it will be worth it," Smith said. "We just want it to be a fair vote."

Around the state, elections officers report numerous calls asking if other ballot choices will count if no selection is made for president.

The answer is yes.

Voters can skip any and every race if they want. Those under-votes, as they are known, are also a political statement and could be a factor in the race for president in Florida.

Another recurring myth is that provisional ballots are only counted in a close race (false) or that mail ballots are not always counted (they are).

"It's a huge misconception," Ertel told the Times/Herald.

In fact, when counties report their first returns on Election Night, this Tuesday, those numbers will include mail ballots and early voting.

"We just keep trying to dispel these myths, voter by voter," said Gerri Kramer, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer.

Voter fraud does occur, but elections experts say it's not widespread.

In Seminole County, five mail ballots were recently stolen from three homes and fraudulently completed by another in an apparently clear-cut case of fraud.

The actual voters got suspicious when their ballots never arrived. They contacted Ertel, who noticed that the signatures on the ballot envelopes did not match signatures on file, which subjected them to review.

He will refer the case to law enforcement.

In a state with nearly 13 million voters, problems do happen, but it doesn't necessarily mean fraud.

It could be human error.

David Sims of Boca Raton suspected fraud when his 91-year-old mother received three mail ballots at her assisted living facility in Lantana. Sims said his mother has dementia.

Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said records show Sims requested all three, but the son insists that was impossible. (By law, a mail ballot voter can ask for up to three ballots, but only one will count).

"She got one. She sent it in. Why would she ask for two more?" David Sims said.

Lara Kramer, 47, of Hollywood suspected something was amiss when Broward's elections office web site said her mail ballot was sent to Oregon on Oct. 4 but she never received it.

The Times/Herald asked the same question. Kramer's replacement ballot was sent Oct. 31, the elections office confirmed.

Kramer said she paid for her second ballot to be sent by overnight delivery.

"Hooray!" she said in an email.

Then there's the one about dead people voting.

More bunk, Ertel said.

But if a voter casts a ballot and dies before 7 p.m. next Tuesday, the vote will still count.

"We do not jump into the ballot box and try to find and shred their vote," Ertel told Facebook followers.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

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