Florida’s unprecedented three statewide recounts in razor-thin elections revealed no clear corruption, despite reckless claims to the contrary. They did expose flaws in the state’s election system, particularly regarding mail ballots that have become the predominant voting method of choice. Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature should make it a priority next spring to make some improvements in advance of the 2020 presidential election.
Here are five changes the new governor and state lawmakers should consider:
1. Promptly notify voters when signatures don’t match on mail ballots. Counties are required to notify any voter when their mail ballot is rejected, but most do that by regular mail. That is not good enough, particularly when smaller counties with fewer mail ballots can make personal calls to voters whose ballots have been rejected. In the 21st century, there ought to be a 21st century solution to promptly notify voters by text or email even if that requires voters to supply additional information when they register to vote or seek to vote by mail.
2. Extend the deadline for correcting errors such as mismatched signatures on mail ballots. In Oregon, voters have up to eight days after the election to fill out a form with the county clerk. In Florida, a signature problem must be “cured’’ by 5 p.m. the day before the election. That’s ridiculous, particularly when thousands of mail ballots arrive shortly before election day and many voters likely don’t even know there is a problem. The deadline ought to be several days after the election, so every ballot can be counted in close races.
3. Adopt uniform statewide standards for determining mismatched signatures, or don’t compare signatures at all. Different counties have different procedures and training for those who are rejecting ballots because the signature doesn’t match. A ballot that might be fine in one county could be rejected in another, and the “I know it when I see it’’ standard doesn’t cut it for denying anyone’s vote. Six states require ballots to be signed but don’t compare signatures at all: Wisconsin, Iowa, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Vermont. But in Florida, about 10,000 ballots were rejected because of mismatched signatures or other “voter error.’’
Consider this balancing test for democracy: Is it worth risking the rejection of a citizen’s legal vote to guard against the small possibility of corruption that might be spotted by a mismatched signature?
4. Require a more uniform statewide ballot. There is a reasonable argument to be made that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson could have won re-election if Broward County had not poorly designed its ballot. The Senate race was buried at the bottom of a column that dealt with ballot instructions. More than 20,000 Broward voters did not vote for a Senate candidate but voted in the governor’s race, which was at the top of the second column of the ballot. Nelson lost the election to Gov. Rick Scott by 10,033 votes statewide out of more than 8.1 million votes cast. By one estimate, Nelson could have won the election by a few hundred votes if Broward voters had behaved like voters in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
5. Invest more in training and computers. There are too many differences in the level of sophistication in the county supervisors of elections offices and among their volunteers. Palm Beach County missed the deadline for the machine recount at least in part because of outdated equipment, and it is not the only county that could use an upgrade.
Elections always will be imperfect. There always will be a margin of error when millions of votes are counted throughout 67 counties. But in a state where key elections are decided by less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote, it’s essential to strive to count every legal vote to maintain confidence in the integrity of the system. Florida can do better.