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Study: Most Florida vote-by-mail ballots flagged for problems in November election cast by young, first-time and minority voters

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Dibya Sarkar

Managing Editor

Wednesday, March 10, 2021


Nearly three-quarters of Floridians whose mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 general election were initially flagged for some problem — such as mismatched or missing signatures — were able to correct or “cure” their ballots in time so they could be counted, according to a new study released Tuesday by the voting rights advocacy group,  All Voting is Local, based in Washington, D.C. However, the study also found that the majority of vote-by-mail ballots flagged for rejection were cast by younger, Black, Hispanic and first-time voters.

“Why were these ballots … being flagged for rejection at a much higher rate initially when it’s clear that they were able to cure their ballots at the same rate as older voters or as white voters?” asked the study’s author, Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida during a Zoom call where he presented the findings. “What is going on in that process?”

Smith said voters under 29 years old were three times as likely than senior voters to have their ballots initially flagged for rejection. Black, Hispanic and other racial minorities were 60 percent more likely to have their mail-in ballots initially flagged for rejection than white voters. Those who registered in 2020 before the cutoff for the August primary were more than twice as likely to have their ballots rejected, said Smith who has published similar reports in the past about voting across the state.

While Florida has been considered a success in the 2020 elections for its vote-by-mail system, lack of any fraud and quick and accurate reporting of the results, the Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing through several bills aimed that would make it harder to mail in ballots. For instance, one bill, SB 90, would require voters to request ballots for the 2022 election cycle. Currently, requests are valid for two election cycles.

In the November election, Floridians cast 4.6 million vote-by-mail ballots across the state’s 67 counties by the Nov. 3, 2020, deadline, according to the study. A little more than 1 percent, or 47,000 ballots — domestically cast, meaning not military or overseas — were initially flagged as problematic by supervisors of elections across the state. Of that amount, only 12,000 ballots, or 0.28 percent, ultimately were not fixed by voters and, thus, not counted. Smith didn’t include any ballots after the Nov. 3 deadline in his study.

Smith pointed out that the 0.28 percent rate of ballots that were not fixed were much lower than rates in each of the previous election cycles of 2018 and 2016, which were about 1 percent. “That’s a drastic reduction,” he said. He attributed the lower 2020 number to “yeoman-like efforts” of voting rights groups, activists, parties and election supervisors who reached out to voters and gave them a chance to correct their ballots.

However, there was a considerable amount of variation across the counties when it came to rejection and cure rates. Asked whether any particular area stood out in the state, Smith said geography, size or density were not tied to the rejection and cure rates. For instance, Duval County had an initial rejection rate of more than 2 percent, he said, while Broward County, also large, had an initial rejection rate of two-tenths of 1 percent.

(According to the report, Orange County’s rejection rate was close to 1.5 percent, and it’s cure rate was roughly 80 percent, according to the report.)

Smith said variation in the rates across the state indicates that neither geography, urban density nor a voter’s race, ethnicity nor age drive the rejection rate. “Do I know what it is? No,” he said. “I don’t know what the reason is for ballots being flagged at 10 times the rate in one county that’s fairly similar to another urban county.” He said there’s something else that’s going on that is “more powerful” than being a person of color, younger or a first-time voter.

However, Brad Ashwell, All Voting is Local’s Florida state director, said during the Zoom call that legislative priorities of DeSantis and lawmakers are “not heading in the right direction” when it comes to voting. Rather than improve access to voting especially with disenfranchised populations that historically have problems with voting, lawmakers seem “hell bent addressing non-issues [like ballot harvesting] … based on blatant lies and misinformation.”

Ashwell said the report recommends that lawmakers standardize and make uniform processes across counties. Among the recommendations, the report said that there needs to be “greater simplicity” in the instructions that come with the mail-in ballots as well as more uniformity in the design of ballot envelopes. Election supervisors should also let voters know on their website not only whether their ballot was received but if it was counted as valid. Election supervisors should also be required to process ballots immediately after they get them and immediately contact voters whose ballots might be problematic.

Smith said the process is working but can be improved. He recommended giving voters more time to correct their ballots and recognition that a ballot’s postmark date should ensure its validity rather than the date it was received by an election supervisor. He also said drop boxes worked well across the state and any efforts to crack down on them would be an “affront to vote-by-mail ballot voters in Florida.”

“I’m hopeful the Florida Legislature recognizes we have a really clean election in Florida,” he added.

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