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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Uncounted votes add up

EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times Mail ballots are loaded into trucks at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office in Largo on Tuesday, October 4, 2016. The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections mailed over 262,000 ballots to domestic voters for the November general election. Nearly 41 percent of registered voters in Pinellas requested a mail ballot.
EVE EDELHEIT | Times Mail ballots are loaded into trucks at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office in Largo on Tuesday, October 4, 2016. The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections mailed over 262,000 ballots to domestic voters for the November general election. Nearly 41 percent of registered voters in Pinellas requested a mail ballot.
Published Dec. 21, 2018

More than a month after Election Day, Florida kept finding and rejecting valid ballots. Nearly 7,000 ballots mailed before the Nov. 6 election were not counted because they weren't received by Election Day. That's not an insignificant number, and it reinforces the need for uniform improvements in elections statewide to better ensure voters are not disenfranchised.

According to the Associated Press earlier this month, 6,670 mail-in ballots in 65 of 67 counties did not get tallied because they arrived too late. Florida law requires that mail-in ballots be received at elections supervisors offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day, a deadline that punishes voters even when the postmark on their ballot shows it was sent in time. Overseas ballots can be accepted as many as 10 days after an election. That should be the standard for accepting all mail ballots.

Florida also should adopt uniform standards for determining mismatched signatures on mail ballots — or do away with comparing signatures. Currently, the standards vary county by county, injecting too much subjectivity into Floridians' voting rights. There also should be an updated process, such as text notifications, for notifying voters of a problem with their ballot and allowing them a reasonable chance to remedy it. The deadline for doing that now is absurd — 5 p.m. the day before the election — and should be extended.

The November election provided an unpleasant reminder of the 2000 debacle when some counties posted thousands of unexplained "undervotes" in the presidential race. This time, more than 20,000 voters in Broward County did not vote in the U.S. Senate race, which was tucked in the bottom corner of the ballot beneath the voting instructions. The governor's race didn't have nearly as many undervotes, and the pattern in Broward did not track with other Democratic strongholds such as Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. That suggests the ballot design was to blame, and Florida should use the experience to establish some uniformity for ballots statewide.

This is not just academic. There were an unprecedented three statewide recounts in the November election amid historically high turnout. In a state with infamously close races, counting every vote is paramount. Consider that about 10,000 ballots were rejected because of mismatched signatures or other "voter error." Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott's margin of victory over incumbent Bill Nelson in the Senate race: 10,033 votes. The 6,670 uncounted mail ballots is just under the margin of victory in the race for agriculture commissioner, where Democrat Nikki Fried edged Republican Matt Caldwell by 6,753 votes. Getting this right matters to candidates, to voters and to the integrity of the state's elections.

For all the fear lately about vote fraud, it's disenfranchisement that should concern Floridians more. Across Florida, almost 7,000 voters filled out their ballots and mailed them in well ahead of Election Day, but their votes didn't count. Another 10,000 had their ballots tossed because of inconsistent rules regarding signatures. These are avoidable problems with achievable solutions, and they should be fixed by the Florida Legislature before the state's next major election in 2020.