TALLAHASSEE — More than 35,500 vote-by-mail ballots didn’t count in Florida’s recent primary, rejected because of missed deadlines or technical flaws, an analysis for POLITICO has found.
The rejections, which accounted for about 1.5 percent of the total vote, came as the battleground state prepares for what could be record voter turnout in the too-close-to-call November presidential election.
Nearly 66 percent of the rejected absentee ballots were disqualified because they arrived after Florida’s 7 p.m. Election Day deadline. The rest didn’t meet signature match requirements used by county election supervisors to verify voters identities, the analysis from University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith showed.
“This could be a huge problem in November,” Smith said. “We could exceed 100,000 vote-by-mail ballots that don’t count.“
In Florida — a swing state crucial to President Donald Trump’s reelection chances — that could be enough uncounted ballots to make a big difference. Three statewide races in 2018 went to recounts and were decided by 33,000 votes or fewer and, most notoriously, the 2000 presidential contest came down to 537 votes in Florida.
Trump won Florida by fewer than 113,000 votes four years ago in an election in which 28 percent of the state’s 9.5 million voters cast their ballots by mail.
By contrast, some 60 percent of votes cast in the state‘s Aug. 18 primary were sent by mail.
About 1.5 percent of the 2.35 million vote-by-mail primary ballots weren’t counted. While that percentage is on par with ballot rejections in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, November’s general election could be different, Smith said.
A historic number of ballots could be cast by mail in the general election because of the coronavirus pandemic and Democratic efforts to sign up absentee voters. The Florida Division of Elections reports that 4.5 million voters have requested a mail-in ballot, and many will start finding their way to mailboxes on Sept. 24.
The upshot could be a flood of first-time absentee voters who aren’t familiar with signature or deadline requirements and wind up casting ballots that don’t count by, for example, failing to properly sign the return envelope.
A potential flashpoint could be Democratic-leaning Miami-Dade County, which had close to one quarter of the mail-in ballots tossed out statewide. Most of those were ballots received after the deadline or without a signature. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden needs a strong showing in Miami-Dade to offset Trump support in other parts of the state, such as southwest Florida.
Suzy Trutie, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade elections office, said the county followed the law that requires election officials to reach out to voters who have problems with their ballots. The office mails a letter as soon as a ballot issue is discovered and tries to reach voters by text, phone or email if that information is on file.
Voters have until two days after the election to cure any problems with their ballots, a change put in place last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature in the wake of lawsuits filed during a 2018 recount.
Adding to the challenges is the U.S. Postal Service, where mail delivery has become politicized as Trump has inaccurately demonized some aspects of mail-in voting.
On Thursday, a federal judge accused the Postal Service’s leadership of engaging in “a politically motivated attack“ on efficiency that was designed to slow mail service before the November election. The judge blocked the changes.
Election Supervisor Brian Corley of Pasco County said voters bear some of the blame for failing to get ballots in on time. Of the 640 vote-by-mail ballots that arrived in his county after the deadline, “the vast majority had a postmark of 8/18 or afterwards,” he wrote in an email.
“You can’t put your vote-vote-by-mail return envelope in your mailbox on Election Day and expect it to get to the Supervisor of Elections office by 7 p.m.,” he said, “unless you’ve mastered time and space.“
Smith advised voters to wear a mask and vote early in person or on Election Day so “less can go wrong.”
Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee told local election supervisors this week that she was “very confident in our ability to administer an orderly vote-by-mail process with a high level of integrity.” The state has had vote-by-mail available for decades and no-excuse mail voting for nearly 20 years.
“This is a method of voting we are very familiar with,” Lee said.
At POLITICO’s request, Smith analyzed voter data submitted by Florida’s 67 county election supervisors to the state Division of Elections.
Democrats cast 50 percent of absentee ballots in the primary and accounted for 47 percent of the mail-in votes that didn’t count, he determined. Republicans, who for years dominated absentee voting and have an electorate familiar with the process, cast 34 percent of absentee ballots in the primary and made up 31 percent of mail-in votes that didn’t count.
Independent and third-party voters had the highest rejection rates, casting 15 percent of mail-in votes while accounting for 22 percent of uncounted ballots.
Independents, who tend to be younger and more Hispanic than the overall electorate, more closely resemble Democratic-leaning voters than Republican ones, Smith said.
Biden and state Democrats have made voting by mail a central message of the 2020 campaign. But leading up to the Democratic National Convention last month, Democrats began broadening their message to encourage people to vote early in person if they could, a sign that the party is worried about potential trouble with absentee ballots.
“We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can,” former first lady Michelle Obama said during her DNC speech.