My collaborator, Michael Herron at Dartmouth, and I have been crunching the numbers, drilling down into the Florida voter file to get a better sense of who is more likely to cast ballots that are later rejected by county canvassing boards.

Doing so has generated considerable publicity and even has raised the possibility of reform, with Governor Scott changing his tune on the deleterious effects of HB1355, though the cynic in me remains to be convinced…I’ll reserve judgment until May, when the legislative session wraps up.

In particular, there’s been a lot of attention focusing on our report that documents the higher rejection rate of absentee ballots cast by minority voters and how these rejection rates are not consistent across the state’s 67 counties.

Due to the long lines during the truncated eight-day early voting period and the expected long lines on Election Day, many minorities–who historically vote early in disproportionately higher rates than whites in Florida–decided instead to request and cast absentee ballots.

As we write in our report, not only did the percentage of African Americans casting absentee ballots go up in 2012, the rejection rate of absentee ballots cast by blacks was nearly twice that of absentee ballots cast by white voters.

Quite possibly due to well‐founded fears of long lines at early voting and Election Day polling sites resulting from HB 1355, absentee ballots—a much less reliable form of voting a valid ballot—increased in 2012. Over 28 percent of all ballots cast in 2012 were absentee ballots, nearly six percentage points higher than in 2008. Almost one percent of these ballots were “rejected as illegal” in 2012 by county canvassing boards, and the African American absentee ballot rejection rate was nearly twice the absentee ballot rejection rate of white voters.

This, of course, raises the question of ‘who should be blamed?’–voters or election administrators–for the significantly higher rejection rate of absentee ballots cast by African Americans.

To answer this question, I think it’s important to first establish some baselines for comparison.  The statewide rejection rate of absentee ballots cast in 2012 was 0.97%. The statewide rejection rate of absentee ballots cast by African Americans was 1.47%.  And the statewide rejection rate of absentee ballots cast by whites was 0.81%.

But there were considerable differences in rejection rates across the state’s 67 counties.

Our findings for Collier County reveal, as reported in the Naples News, that more than 6% of the absentee ballots cast by 580 African Americans in the county were ‘rejected as illegal’ by the county canvassing board, a rejection rate nearly 5x greater than that for white voters casting absentee ballots. It should be noted that Collier County is one of the five counties in Florida covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

It’s curious, then, why the rejection rate of the absentee ballots cast by 2,522 blacks in neighboring Lee County was 0%. Or that only 1.65% of absentee ballots cast by blacks in neighboring Miami-Dade County were ‘rejected as illegal.’

For anyone who has observed county canvassing boards interpreting the validity of signatures on the back of absentee ballots, they’ll likely attest that there’s a considerable amount of discretion in determining whether the signature on an absentee ballot envelope should be accepted or rejected.

According to the Florida Statutes, “The canvassing board shall, if the supervisor has not already done so, compare the signature of the elector on the voter’s certificate with the signature of the elector in the registration books to see that the elector is duly registered in the county and to determine the legality of that absentee ballot….An absentee ballot shall be considered illegal if it does not include the signature of the elector, as shown by the registration records.”

Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised with the fairly high rate of absentee ballots that are rejected, compared to those cast in person during the early voting period or on Election Day.  As I told the Miami-Herald last year, “Absentee ballots are processed and verified using different standards than regular ballots and as such, are routinely rejected at a higher rate by county supervisors than ballots cast during the early voting period or on Election Day.”

Of course, the rejection rate for absentee ballots may be attributed to the ignorance of voters, as some neglect to sign the back of the envelope properly, or sign in a way that does not match their signature on file with the election supervisor’s office.

But then what accounts for the inter-county variation in rejection rates for African Americans?  Are blacks living in Lee County more educated, or more civic-minded and engaged, than those living just south of them in Collier County? Color me dubious….

Perhaps it’s attributable to fraud–that the absentee ballots requested for African American voters in Collier were being filled out by other individuals, thus increasing the likelihood that the signature of the imposter wouldn’t match that on the voter file. Or perhaps elderly or crippled African Americans were more likely to have help filling out their ballots than similar white voters casting absentee ballot voters.

Hmmmmm….  So, both of these possible forms of fraud seemingly only occurred in Collier County, and only among African American absentee voters, but not in other counties.  Again, it doesn’t seem very plausible to me.

What about the role of election administrators and the canvassing boards charged with determining whether an absentee ballot is valid. It’s true that there is no overt information about a voter’s race or ethnicity on the envelope containing an absentee ballot.

But that does not mean that those charged with determining the veracity of a voter’s signature are ignorant of the race/ethnicity of an absentee voter.  Not only do many given and surnames often have a racial/ethnic identity, but so too do the return addresses on absentee ballot envelopes. Given the high racial/ethnic geographic segregation in most of Florida counties, it doesn’t take much local knowledge to have a pretty good guess of the racial/ethnic identity of a voter living on a particular street or in a given neighborhood.

In no way am I suggesting that there is overt racism by local supervisors or their canvassing boards when judging whether a signature should be ‘rejected as illegal’ or not.

And I’m not willing to absolve the culpability of individual voters casting absentee ballots that are deemed to be invalid.

Still, I have yet to hear a good reason for why there’s such a gap across Florida’s 67 counties when it comes to the rejection rates of absentee ballots cast by minority voters across the state.

But such a gap does exist, and because some of these counties–such as Collier County–still fall under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of past racial discrimination, it seems pretty important for the US Justice Department and state and federal policy makers to acknowledge these differences and begin to drill down, like we’re trying to do, to understand why they seem to persist.

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