Vote by mail has been a stunning success in Florida, increasing turnout and making it easy and convenient to cast a ballot with time to research and reflect. But a new study shows that mail ballots cast by African-American, Hispanic or younger voters are far likelier to be rejected than others -- and rejection rates for all voters vary widely by county. These findings demonstrate the need for statewide uniformity in how county supervisors of elections evaluate ballots and that voters need to be sure they understand how to properly complete a mail ballot.
The study, commissioned by the Florida ACLU and conducted by Daniel Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida, shows that Pinellas County is a model for how to do vote by mail right. Pinellas has few of the problems facing other counties.
Statewide, 1 percent of ballots cast by mail are rejected, and that's 10 times the rate for those who vote in person. Although 1 percent might seem small, it adds up to thousands and thousands of people who were disenfranchised when their ballots were rejected. In the 2016 general election, about 29 percent of Floridians (2.7 million) voted by mail. In Pinellas, where far more than half vote by mail, the rejection rate was 10 times lower than the state average, about one-tenth of 1 percent.
For a mail-in ballot to count, it must be signed and dated, and the signature must match the one on file. Either problem can be "cured," and Pinellas is particularly good at it both through education about avoiding glitches in the first place and through proactive measures to alert voters in time to fix their mistakes when they do occur.
The problems are most acute among younger voters. In 2016, voters between 18 and 21 were eight times more likely to have their vote by mail ballots rejected than were voters who were 65 or older. In fact, more than 4 percent of all mail votes cast by these youngest voters were rejected. In the 2016 general election, voters under 30 years old accounted for nearly 31 percent of all rejected ballots even though they cast just 9.2 percent of all vote by mail ballots.
For younger voters, it's quite possible that their signature has changed from when they preregistered at 16 to when they signed a ballot at 18 or 21. For Hispanic voters, it's possible that variations in signature — one might include a mother's surname and another might not — account for part of the problem. And it's also likely that more bilingual ballot information would help those who have a weak command of English. Smith, the UF professor, has found some cultural aspects in play, too. For example, he discovered names that include hyphens or apostrophes were more likely to be rejected.
The statistical disparities across groups greatly trouble Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU, who says your vote "shouldn't depend on your zip code or your county." Getting this right is partly up to the individual voter, but it's also up to the entire state to adopt the kind of thinking that Pinellas uses to make vote by mail a success.
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The Legislature allows voters to fix or "cure" a ballot that lacks a signature or has one that is mismatched, but neither the Legislature nor the secretary of state has adopted detailed protocols that should be uniform in all counties.
What does Pinellas do right? First, its ballot is easy to use and direct. In a big red bilingual box, it says "voter must sign" and warns that if you don't sign it, your vote won't count. Then, when the ballot arrives at the elections office, workers use a multi-pass system to verify signatures. On the first run, a line worker looks at a computer monitor to compare the signature on the ballot envelope with other signatures on file — past votes cast in person, etc. — to look for a match. Even if there isn't one, that worker cannot reject the signature but rather escalates to a manager for a second pass. It is clear from experience when signatures match, and this is key. For example, one signature might include a middle initial and another might not, and that's okay. Pinellas maintains the integrity of the system and guards against voter fraud, but not at the expense of rejecting legitimately cast votes. If there still is no match, the office sends a letter to the voter to let them certify a new signature. The office will also try emailing or calling, using all means possible to reach the voter in time to fix the ballot by 5 p.m. the day before the election.
This education and outreach is what makes Pinellas different, and it is a model the secretary of state should specify and the Legislature should adopt going forward. In the meantime, voters should ensure that they have a current signature on file and that they are careful to date and sign the envelope before sending back their ballots. They'll be in the mail in just over a week.