Glitch in Florida’s Voter Registration System can Disenfranchise Absentee Voters

by Michael C. Herron & Daniel A. Smith

A couple weeks ago, when we were investigating for our academic research patterns in rejection rates of absentee and provisional ballots cast in the August 14, 2012 primary election, we discovered some anomalies in the Florida statewide voter file.

Upon further investigation, and after following up with some county Supervisors of Elections, we believe that we have found a troubling anomaly in Florida’s Voter Registration System. This oversight that we stumbled upon has the potential to disenfranchise registered voters who mailed in absentee ballots from their counties of residence and then subsequently updated their voter registration addresses with new information to reflect having moved.  By being vigilant and updating their voter registration information to reflect their current addresses, these voters risk becoming “self-disenfranchised.”

Basically, what’s happening is this. As soon as a voter who has moved updates her address with her new local Supervisor of Elections, her voter record in the state’s main voter database is changed so that it indicates the new county.  If, however, the voter requested and mailed in an absentee ballot for a given election while living in her old county, the state’s database will make it appear (correctly) to the former Supervisor of Elections, who no longer has custody of the voter’s file, that this voter no longer resides in said county.  As such, when the former SOE receives and tries to process the absentee ballot, mailed before the voter moved, it will be rejected.

If this voter, after updating her voter registration, were to try to cast another ballot in the same election in her new county, thinking that she should do so having moved, she would be potentially committing a felony (for voting more than once), even though her initial absentee ballot will be rejected by the SOE in the county in which she used to reside.  Still, if she persists and goes to the polls during the early voting period or on Election Day, she will be given a provisional ballot if demanded.  This provisional ballot will (correctly) be rejected as illegal by the SOE in the county in which the voter presently resides, because the registration system (correctly) indicates that she has already requested an absentee ballot in another county.

Such a civic-minded voter–who updates her voter registration after requesting an absentee ballot from a former county of residence–is caught in a Catch-22.

It’s impossible to know how many legally registered voters in Florida will be affected by this Catch-22 in the upcoming November 2012 election.  However, we know that what we have described here actually happened in the August 2012 primary to an individual who updated his place of residence after he had previously requested an absentee ballot.

And we already know of at least a dozen cases in one (relatively small) county in Florida in which a close variant of this scenario occurred.

We believe that the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections has been alerted to the glitch we’ve described here.  But we think as well that voters in Florida should be aware of it so that they avoid self-disenfranchisement.

We also hope that the Florida Division of Elections will try to remedy this situation before more of Florida’s registered voters unwittingly have their absentee ballots rejected.

Michael C. Herron is professor of government at Dartmouth College, and Daniel A. Smith is professor of political Science at the University of Florida.

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