In Florida, voters of color and young voters have had ballots flagged for possible rejection at higher rates than others

By Elise Viebeck and Beth Reinhard,

Michael Robinson Chavez The Washington Post

Workers with the Miami-Dade County Elections Department count ballots Friday in Doral, Fla.

As Floridians rush to vote in the presidential election, mail ballots from Black, Hispanic and younger voters are being flagged for problems at a higher rate than they are for other voters, potentially jeopardizing their participation in the race for the country’s largest battleground state.

The deficient ballots — which have been tagged for issues such as a missing signature — could be rejected if voters do not remedy the problems by 5 p.m. Nov. 5.

As of Thursday, election officials had set aside twice as many ballots from Black and Hispanic voters as those from White voters, according to an analysis by University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith. For people younger than 24, the rate was more than four times what it was for those 65 and older.

While the number of deficient mail ballots in Florida was relatively low one week before the election, at roughly 15,000 out of more than 4.3 million cast, that figure could rise sharply: Roughly 1.6 million Floridians still have outstanding mail ballots.

With President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden locked in a tight race for the state’s 29 electoral votes, the number of rejected ballots could make a difference in who wins Florida — and potentially the White House.

“The margins in Florida could definitely come down to the vote-by-mail ballots,” Smith said. “It’s obviously an area where there will be litigation if there is a close election.”

Florida has a history of problematic ballots triggering high-stakes fights with tight electoral margins on the line. The 2000 presidential contest in the state, upended by the battle over “hanging chads” in the South Florida counties that used punch-card ballots, was decided by 537 votes.

In 2018, then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) lost his reelection bid by just 10,033 votes after more than 32,000 mail ballots were rejected by election officials. That race led to a slew of lawsuits over the state’s signature-matching rules. In one case, a federal judge gave voters more time to fix mismatched signatures, but it did not provide Nelson with enough additional votes to beat Republican Rick Scott.

The massive shift to voting by mail this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic has increased the possibility that problems with mail ballots could be a factor in races across the country.

For the first time in recent history, voters in every major swing state are eligible to cast ballots by mail without a traditional excuse. Many who have never voted this way may not be familiar with the extra steps required, such as signing the envelope or placing the ballot inside a secrecy sleeve in some states.

More than 534,000 mail ballots were rejected during primaries across 23 states, including nearly a quarter in key presidential battlegrounds, according to a tally by The Washington Post. Notably, election officials tossed out more than 60,480 ballots during primaries in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — states Trump won by roughly 80,000 votes in 2016.

[More than 500,000 mail ballots were rejected in the primaries. That could make the difference in battleground states this fall.]

As of Tuesday, roughly 30,000 mail ballots had been flagged for possible rejection or cure in eight battleground states, accounting for a tiny fraction of the roughly 11.5 million mail ballots returned, an analysis by The Post found. Florida accounted for about half of the total number, which was compiled from data provided by Smith, secretaries of state and University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald’s U.S. Elections Project.

The number of deficient ballots nationally is expected to rise quickly. Only a handful of battleground states publicly report the number of ballots that have been tagged for possible rejection, and some provide only partial data.

“The problem is, if you’ve got millions of ballots, you’re trying to notify a large number of voters that there’s a question about their signature, you have untrained staff looking at signatures, people may have a 30-year-old signature,” Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit group that has sued over signature-match rules, told reporters this week.

“This is going to be an issue if it’s a close election in a number of states because there will be battles over whether absentee ballots will be counted or not,” he added.

Michael Robinson Chavez

The Washington Post

An early voter at the elections office in Doral on Friday.

Votes up in the air

Studies have shown that ballots from voters of color and younger voters have been disproportionately rejected in past elections, a trend that appears to be continuing this year based on the figures available.

In Georgia, 1,385 ballots had been flagged for problems as of Friday, including 729 from Black voters and 416 from White voters, according to state data. The vast majority had missing or invalid signatures.

Atlanta resident Victoria Benedict, a 51-year-old small-business owner, said she has been voting by mail for years and was shocked when she was notified that her ballot was rejected for an “invalid signature.”

When she called the Fulton County elections office, she said a staffer told her to make an appointment to come into the office or bring the ballot to the polls on Election Day. She later learned from the state Democratic Party that she could successfully fix her ballot by emailing an affidavit to the elections office.

“It’s terrifying to me that the office is disseminating incorrect information that could have a chilling effect on voters curing their ballot,” said Benedict, who was reached through ProPublica’s Electionland voter tip line. “I’m worried that people won’t know what to do or have the time to research it like I did.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) predicted this week that the state’s total ballot rejection rate will be consistent with the last election, in the range of 1 percent.

“Every eligible voter — their vote will count,” he said at a news conference.

In Florida, the most commonly flagged problem with mail ballots has been a missing voter signature on the back of the ballot envelope, Smith said.

The total rate of pending rejections was 0.35 percent, a rate he predicted will rise to the 2016 election-year level of about 1 percent after late-arriving ballots are factored in.

Deficient ballots were slightly more likely to come from Democratic mail voters, at 0.33 percent, than Republican voters, at 0.29 percent — and both were lower than unaffiliated voters, whose ballots were flagged at a rate of 0.47 percent.

Experience also matters in whether a voter’s ballot gets tossed, the data shows. Floridians who did not vote by mail in 2016 but did so this year had a rejection rate three times that of other voters, Smith found.

Election officials are required to notify voters “as soon as practicable” that their ballots are deficient and send affidavits to correct them. A Florida election law retooled last year gives voters extra time to fix their ballots, allowing them to return affidavits by mail, by email, by fax or in person by 5 p.m. on the second day after the election.

In Miami-Dade County, where about 2,600 ballots have been flagged, 52-year-old Democratic volunteer Andrea Askowitz recently spent two days driving around and knocking on the doors of voters whose ballots have been flagged for rejection.

Askowitz said assisting even a small number of Democratic voters felt more worthwhile than her previous efforts handing out Democratic slate cards at an early-voting site and holding a Biden sign on a street corner.

“I think helping people with their absentee ballots is the one thing I can do that’s meaningful,” she said. “It’s grueling, but I know those are three Biden votes for sure.”

Such efforts could make a difference. Seven statewide elections between 2010 and 2018 were decided by less than 1.2 percent, including three that were decided by 0.4 percent or less, according to Democratic consultant Steve Schale. Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in Florida was about 113,000 votes.

Michael Robinson Chavez

The Washington Post

Supporters of local candidates hand out fliers near the early-voting site in Doral.

Reasons for rejection

Mismatched signatures on mail ballots were central to legal disputes in Florida after the 2018 election, with multiple courts agreeing that state rules for validating and curing ballots were not fair or enforced consistently.

In a 2019 retuning of state election law, legislators required the secretary of state to offer signature-match training to election supervisors and other members of local canvassing boards.

[Does your vote count in Florida? It might depend on your signature.]

More than 30 states this year are using signature matching to validate mail ballots, a process that involves comparing the voter’s signature on the ballot envelope to one on file with the government.

Voting rights advocates and Democrats have challenged this approach in some places, arguing that rules must be standardized to protect voters against false mismatches.

And in about 20 states, there is no guarantee that voters will be notified and offered a chance to fix, or “cure,” problems with their ballots this year, another source of concern.

Virginia Kase, chief executive of the League of Women Voters, said the problem of rejected ballots has been “amplified this year” by the shift toward mail voting in a hotly contested presidential cycle.

“We are constantly fighting and battling to ensure that there are notification and cure processes for rejected ballots,” she told reporters this week, noting that her group is prepared to file lawsuits if it observes problems with ballot processing or counting.

In addition to signature problems, late arrival tends to be one of the top reasons mail ballots are rejected, studies have found. More than 36 million requested mail ballots had not been returned throughout the country as of Friday morning, according to McDonald, leading election officials and activists to push voters to return them quickly in person or to change their plans and vote on Election Day.

“The most important issue is for voters to know as quickly as possible if there is an error, if there is a mistake, so they can correct it,” Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and founder of Fair Fight Action, said during an online panel discussion this week. “Fixing your ballot is just as important as sending it in, and the longer we take to send in those ballots, the less time we have to correct any mistakes.”

This year, more than 20 states plan to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and received within a certain period after that, some despite lawsuits from Republicans seeking to toss ballots that arrive after Nov. 3.

This week, the Supreme Court upheld extended ballot return deadlines in North Carolina and Pennsylvania while invalidating an extension in Wisconsin. On Thursday night, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit rolled back an extended deadline in Minnesota; the state is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Postal delays could further complicate voters’ efforts to return their ballots on time. The U.S. Postal Service has said it cannot guarantee delivery for ballots mailed past Oct. 27, and rates of on-time mail delivery are lagging in critical battleground states.

Michael Robinson Chavez

The Washington Post

Ballots are organized at the Miami-Dade County elections office.

Wave of lawsuits

Signature-match and curing rules have dominated court fights related to voting ahead of the election, prompting at least nine states to make their systems more voter-friendly.

This month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision allowing Arizona voters who forget to sign their mail ballots up to five days after the election to fix the problem. Voters with mismatched signatures already had that amount of time to prove their identities and have their ballots counted.

In Pennsylvania last week, the state Supreme Court said state law does not authorize election officials to reject mail ballots based on mismatched signatures.

In North Carolina, mail voters are required to include a witness signature as proof their ballot was voted properly. Litigation over how to address ballots missing those signatures left at least 6,800 votes — including more than 3,300 from people of color — in limbo at one point earlier this month.

[A legal fight over how to fix ballot errors in North Carolina has left thousands of voters in limbo. Nearly half are people of color.]

Rosalee Rockafellow, a 76-year-old resident of Sunset Beach near the state’s southern border, sprang into action last month after she was notified her absentee ballot was deficient because of an error on her ballot envelope. She personally delivered an affidavit to the Brunswick County elections office. But online, her ballot was still marked as not accepted. A staffer told her that absentee ballots were the subject of a court case and that her ballot remained in limbo.

Rockafellow, who was reached through ProPublica’s Electionland voter tip line, said she finally confirmed last week that her ballot had been counted.

“I really feel that had I not called and called and called and been so tenacious that my vote would still be sitting in a pile of unaccepted ballots somewhere,” she said.

Lenny Bronner, Anu Narayanswamy and J.M. Rieger contributed to this report.

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