The Achilles' heel of voting by mail is ballot rejection. Unlike ballots cast in person, ballots voted by mail can be rejected after being cast. The two most common reasons for mail-in ballot rejection are lateness and signature defects on ballot return envelopes.
Let’s think first about lateness. Election Day is still more than two weeks off, and we do not know how many mail ballots in Florida will arrive after the state’s 7 p.m. deadline that day. Ballots received after this deadline are rejected, and it doesn’t matter whether they were mailed or even postmarked prior to Election Day.
Thinking now beyond lateness, of the roughly 2.1 million mail ballots that have already been submitted in Florida as of Thursday, there are 8,150 — approximately 0.39 percent — which lack signatures on their return envelopes. Another 3,530 — approximately 0.17 of submitted mail ballots — have other problems with their envelopes, like signatures that local elections clerks have concluded do not match official voter signatures on file. All 11,680 of these mail ballots are slated to be rejected unless the voters who cast them are able to “cure” their ballots of any signature-related problems.
To be clear, mail ballots facing rejection simply will not count unless they are cured. Voters who have already cast their ballots, only to have them rejected, risk having no voice in the election. If notified of a problem with a ballot’s return envelope, a voter has until Thursday, Nov. 5, to provide a cure affidavit to a county Supervisor of Elections. Voters should track the status of their mail ballots by going online and visiting their county Supervisor’s website.
Not all voters are equally likely to have their mail ballots rejected. Of rejected mail ballots cast in the present election in Florida for which we can determine a voter’s race or ethnicity, 2,199 were cast by Black voters, 2,554 by Hispanic voters, and 5,521 by white voters. These raw numbers translate into race/ethnicity-based ballot rejection rates of 0.87 percent, 1 percent and 0.37 percent, respectively, meaning that approximately 1 percent of absentee ballots submitted by Hispanic voters in Florida to date will be rejected unless cured. That mail ballot rejection rates in Florida vary by voter race/ethnicity is troubling, as all eligible voters deserve to have their voices heard.
The matter of voter race/ethnicity notwithstanding, so far in the 2020 general election the pattern of mail ballots received by Supervisors of Elections is not distributed evenly across Florida. Although Miami-Dade County accounts for only 7.2 percent of mail ballots cast by Florida voters, it accounts for nearly 23 percent of the state’s mail ballots received without signatures. Orange County is also an outlier, having received just 4.6 percent of all mail ballots cast in Florida yet 13 percent of returned mail ballot envelopes without signatures.
Some voters regularly submit mail ballots that end up rejected. Of the 8,150 Florida voters who for the Nov. 3 election have submitted ballots without signatures, 225 of them did the same thing in Florida’s August 2020 primary. These voters are running straight into the rules that regulate mail voting in Florida. If they do not cure the ballots that they just submitted, they will find themselves in the unenviable position of having had mail ballots rejected in two consecutive statewide elections in a row. Overall in Florida’s recent August primary, more than 12,000 mail ballots received on-time by local elections offices went uncured by voters.
It’s only been six years, starting with the 2014 general election, that Florida voters have been offered the opportunity to cure mail ballots of missing signatures. In 2016, voting rights groups successfully sued the state, extending Florida’s cure process to include mail ballots initially rejected due to ostensible signature mismatches. Statutorily, Florida now provides voters who submit mail ballots with signature defects on their return envelopes up to two days after Election Day to provide their Supervisor of Elections with documentation and an affidavit. This opportunity is valuable, though, only to the extent that voters who have problems with their mail ballots receive notification with enough time to meet the state’s cure deadline.
Indeed, the state’s 67 Supervisors of Elections are not required to inform with any alacrity those voters who have cast mail ballots that, without curing, will be rejected. Rather, according to state law, Supervisors need only to “(a)s soon as practicable… attempt to notify an elector who has returned a vote-by-mail ballot that does not include the elector’s signature or contains a signature that does not match the elector’s signature in the registration books.”
Depending on when a voter’s mail ballot was received by a county elections office, when the local canvassing board begins to canvass mail ballots, and what resources are available to a Supervisor’s staff, some voters this election who cast mail ballots with rejectable defects will almost certainly have more opportunities than others to cure their ballots.
In the midst of a public health emergency, American voters across the country are increasingly turning to mail voting. Any Florida voter who has already cast, or plans to cast, a mail ballot in the 2020 general election would be well-served to ensure that it is not facing rejection — and to strive to cure it otherwise.
But this can only happen with the full support of local election officials. All hands on deck — meaning officials, voting rights groups, and voters themselves — will be required to ensure that all eligible Floridians have an opportunity to correct problems with mail-in ballot return envelopes. The legitimacy of the election depends in no small part on every valid ballot being counted.
Michael C. Herron is the William Clinton Story Remsen 1943 Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. Daniel A. Smith is professor and chair of Political Science at the University of Florida.