Archives for category: Absentee Ballots
Excited to be teaming up with Whitney Quesenbery <@CivicDesign>, Michael McDonald <@ElectProject>, Michael Herron, and my undergrad and graduate students at the University of Florida for this Knight Foundation News Challenge!

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.

In the 2008 General Election, roughly 876k total ballots were cast in Miami-Dade County.  Roughly 20% of all ballots cast in the election were absentee ballots, and of the the 175k absentee ballots cast, approximately 1% were rejected.  Only 10% of African Americans voted absentee in 2008 in Miami-Dade, and only 1.2% of those ballots were rejected.

A majority of African Americans in the county, some 56%, voted early during the 14 day early voting period in 2008 (which included the final Sunday before Election Day). Very few problems with long lines were reported, despite the fact that more than 325k voters cast their ballots in-person at early voting sites.

Fast-forward to 2012.

We all know of the unacceptably long lines at early voting sites in Miami-Dade in 2012 (some lasting more than 6 hours).  Not surprisingly, voter participation during the truncated eight-day period dropped in the county, as it did statewide (by more than 200k voters). In 2012, only 235k voters in Miami-Dade cast their ballots early, a drop of roughly 90,000 voters.  The steep drop in early voting by African Americans is particularly striking, given the propensity of blacks to vote early.  Fewer than 75k African Americans, just 42%, voted early in Miami-Dade in 2012, a drop of 14 percentage points from the nearly 56% early voting rate in 2008.

Many African Americans, seeing the long lines, out of necessity became absentee ballot voters in 2012.   Over 33k blacks in the county voted by absentee ballot in the county.  But over 500 of those ballots were rejected by the county canvassing board, a rejection rate of 1.65%, which was far higher than the overall statewide rejection rate of .97%, and higher than the rejection rate of absentee ballots cast by blacks in Miami-Dade in 2008.

Just some food for thought for Marc Caputo to contemplate…





Michael C. Herron and Daniel A. Smith, “Florida’s 2012 General Election under HB 1355: Early Voting, Provisional Ballots, and Absentee Ballots

Executive Summary
The 2012 General Election was the first major election in Florida held after the passage of House Bill 1355, a controversial election law that among other things reduced the early voting period in Florida and altered the requirements for casting provisional ballots.

By cutting early voting from 14 to eight days and eliminating early voting on the Sunday before the 2012 election, HB 1355 likely contributed to longer early voting lines at the polls, causing in‐person early voting turnout to drop by more than 225,000 voters compared to 2008.

The reduction in opportunities to vote early under HB 1355 disproportionately affected African American voters, insofar as nearly half of all blacks who voted in 2012 cast in‐person early ballots. Although blacks made up less than 14 percent of the Florida electorate as of November/December 2012, they cast 22 percent of all the early votes in 2012, roughly the same percentage as in 2008.

African Americans and Hispanic voters were more likely than white voters to cast provisional ballots and nearly twice as likely to have their provisional ballots rejected.

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.

Here’s a little primer, as there’s been so much confusion about “early voting,” generically speaking, in Florida.

Any registered voter may request an absentee ballot. A voter need not provide an excuse, and the process of obtaining an absentee ballot is very accommodating to voters (or their designates). There are deadlines (no later than 5pm on the 6th day before an election) when a voter must request (by mail, phone, fax, or email) his or her ballot to be mailed, and when the Supervisors of Elections must mail them, but this process is becoming automated in some counties. Several county SOEs are actively trying to encourage voters to automatically receive absentee ballots in the mail, and some are even providing pre-paid postage for the returns. Absentee ballots must be returned to the Supervisor of Elections by 7pm on Election Day.

But registered voters may also request absentee ballots in person, up to and including on Election Day.

Not all SOEs have been very accommodating, however, when these in-person requests are made. Some, like Broward County SOE Brenda Snipes, were requiring requests for an in-person absentee ballot to be made by prior to a voter stopping at her office to pick up and fill in the ballot. Others do not keep hours on the weekend or after regular business hours, even though their early voting sites may be open. Still others discourage or do not allow the practice at all. This was the controversy, which led to the Democratic Party’s lawsuit, and eventual settlement today that affected in-person absentee ballots in three south Florida counties.

The actual mechanics of voting an in-person absentee ballot, are different than voting in person during the early voting period (which was shrunk to 8 days from 14 by the state legislature), or on Election Day. When casting an absentee ballot, the signature of the voter on the back of the envelope containing the absentee ballot (either in-person or mailed) must match the existing signature on file with the Supervisor of Elections. The voter’s signature is not notarized nor witnessed.  This signature may be years, or even decades old, and may not look anything like the voter’s current signature. A SOE clerk, upon receiving the absentee ballot (in-person or otherwise), immediately pulls the voter’s electronic voter card up to verify the voter is currently registered to vote in the county and that the signature on file matches the one of the envelope. If it does not match, the absentee ballot, unopened and still in its envelope, is quarantined, to be examined later by the county’s three-member canvassing board to determine its validity.

Michael Herron and I have analyzed the rejection rates of absentee ballots across counties in recent posts, and suffice to say, there’s lots of variation.

Early voting, on the other hand, which this year was reduced by the Republican legislature to just 8 days (eliminating the first 5 days and last, “Souls to the Polls” Sunday prior to the election), allows any registered voter in a county to vote at any one of the early voting centers in the county. When checking in at the polls, the voter is asked to show a valid picture identification with a signature. The voter then signs in, and the clerk matches the signature with that on the voter’s ID card. To my knowledge, there is no matching during the early voting period (or on Election Day) of the voter’s signature with the original (or an electronic facsimile) in the voter file.

In sum, there are functional differences between casting an absentee ballot (in-person or otherwise) and voting early (or on Election Day).  Most notably, a voter ID is not necessary to vote in-person absentee, just as it is not needed for those mailing in traditional absentee ballots. But the voter’s signature on the envelope must match the signature that is on file with the SOE.  Early (and Election Day) voters must provide a valid picture ID with the voter’s signature, and the voter’s signature must match that on the ID card, not the voter file.

Two different systems to verify the identify of the voter, with two different sets of possibilities of a ballot being accepted or rejected.

Dr. Herron and I will have more to say about these differences for a paper we are presenting at the Midwest Political Science Association.

Counting Ballots in Florida: Where you Live Matters

Daniel A. Smith, Professor, Political Science, University of Florida, and Michael C. Herron, Professor of Government, Dartmouth College

A lesson all Floridians should have learned from the 2000 presidential election meltdown is that state law requires the uniform application across all 67 counties in Florida of the electoral code. Nonetheless, reports are surfacing that high numbers of voters in some counties are having their absentee ballots rejected by local canvassing boards, and still others indicate that voters turning out to cast early ballots at the polls are being required to vote provisional ballots.

For an absentee ballot to count, the envelope in which it was mailed must have a voter signature. The voter’s signature must match a signature on file with a relevant Supervisor of Elections Office. County canvassing boards – made up of three members, one of whom is the local supervisor of elections (unless he or she is running for re-election) – are responsible for determining if a given absentee ballot should be accepted or rejected.

Historically, and again in the 2012 presidential election, problems with a voter’s signature are associated with rejected absentee ballots.

This past week, in Palm Beach County, a woman who cast an absentee ballot that was deemed “rejected as illegal” by the county canvassing board, apparently because her signature on the back of the envelope didn’t match the record on file with the supervisor, filed a lawsuit to challenge her vote not being counted. The circuit judge who heard the case on Friday, while sympathetic to the 61-year-old’s claim that it was indeed her signature on the back of the envelope, told her from the bench, “Logic, common sense, equity, the American way – they’re all on your side.” But, “[W]hen I read the statutes I’m not convinced logic, common sense and the law reside in the same house.”

And in Volusia County, news accounts report that more than 400 voters have already have had their absentee ballots rejected by the local canvassing board, including more than 150 voters whose signatures on the back of the privacy envelopes apparently didn’t match what was on file with the local Supervisor of Elections Office.

Voters whose absentee ballots are rejected for signature problems appear to be out of luck. There are no second chances if signatures do not line up on absentee ballots. If an absentee ballot is rejected by the canvassing board, a voter may not legally cast a replacement ballot at the polls.

In 2008, according to a survey of Florida’s 67 Supervisors of Elections conducted after the presidential contest by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 18,456 absentee ballots were rejected statewide, roughly 1 percent of the total absentee ballots cast. Of those absentee ballots deemed to be invalid, 30.5 percent were received after the close of polls on Election Day, 34.0 percent did not have a signature on the return envelope, and 25.8 percent had a non-matching signature. A couple dozen more absentee ballots were rejected because there were multiple ballots in an envelope, the envelope returned that was returned was unofficial, or the envelope wasn’t sealed.

Turning now to problems with voting in person, Florida law allows individuals who claim to be properly registered and eligible to vote but whose eligibility cannot be verified at the polls, to cast a provisional ballot. While no hard data on the status of these ballots from Florida’s 67 counties is yet available for the 2012 election, if history is any guide, voters who are required to cast provisional ballots will be very unlikely to have their votes tabulated.

Compared to the rejection rates of absentee ballots, voters casting provisional ballots at the polls four years ago were even more likely to have their ballots rejected by canvassing boards. Indeed, over half of the 35,635 provisional ballots cast during early voting period or on Election Day in 2008 were subsequently rejected. Most of those whose provisional ballots were rejected were determined not to be registered in Florida or had voted in the wrong county (and failed to update their addresses); a few others didn’t provide adequate identification at the polls or filled out information on their provisional ballot privacy sleeves incorrectly.

The point we are trying to make clear is that many ballots cast in Florida are rejected. And, as we show in the accompanying graphic (click here) depicting the August primary – which displays the proportion of rejected absentee ballots along the X axis and provisional ballots along the Y axis, with the size of the dots representing the sum of the absentee and provisional ballots cast in the election — the likelihood of a ballot being rejected appears to depend on where it was cast, that is, in what county. All Florida voters should thus be asking, is there reason to be worried that the likelihood that my absentee or provisional ballot might be rejected depending on the county of my residence?

To get a better sense of the importance of this question, we looked at the patterns of rejected absentee and provisional ballots across Florida’s 67 counties in the recent Aug. 14 primary election. More than 786,000 voters cast absentee ballots and nearly 3,000 more were required to cast provisional ballots in this election, held only a few months ago.

Thousands of absentee and provisional ballots were rejected by county canvassing boards in the August primary. These rejection figures need to be considered in the context of a primary. That is, the primary was an election in which “super voters” — the state’s most highly engaged voters – made up the vast majority of the voter pool.

What we found by analyzing voter history files maintained by the Florida Division of Elections is that the rejection rates of absentee and provisional ballots vary considerably across the state. As the graphic reveals, some counties reject a much higher proportion of absentee ballots and provisional ballots than others. Our analysis of official voter history files assumes that all absentee and provisional ballots cast were accepted unless there is unambiguous evidence in the history files that they were not. In addition, we also eliminated obvious inconsistencies in the state’s voter files in a way that we believe is appropriate.

With nearly 2 million absentee ballots already received by Supervisors of Elections Offices in advance of the upcoming 2012 general election, and countless more provisional ballots being cast during early voting (and on Election Day), there is a good possibility that we will see an even higher percentage of absentee and provisional ballots rejected by local canvassing boards than in the August primary and possibly even the 2008 general election.

Unfortunately, we won’t know definitively how many absentee and provisional ballots will be rejected until after voting has concluded and, presumably, a president named.

But the considerable variation across counties when it comes to rejecting absentee and provisional ballots is troubling. At this point we cannot say why there are considerable differences in Florida in the rejection rates of absentee and provisional ballots. But, we are suspicious that election administration across the state’s 67 counties is not entirely in keeping with a uniform application of the state’s electoral code.

In order to prevent another election fiasco, we think it is crucial that election administrators not only help voters become more educated about submitting valid absentee ballots, but also do what they can to avoid forcing voters to cast provisional ballot. It is also critical that supervisors of elections and county canvassing boards apply a uniform standard when making what are often judgment calls that decide whether a ballot counts or not.

Voting is a fundamental right in the United States. Casting absentee and provisional ballots may, unfortunately, be leading to the disenfranchisement of some voters, depending on the counties in which they reside.

Drs. Smith and Herron have co-authored articles in several outlets examining voting rights and election law in Florida.

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.

My collaborator, Michael Herron, and I have identified what seems to be a flaw in the processing of absentee ballots in Florida that has the potential to disenfranchise registered voters who are fulfilling their civic duty.

I will be providing more details tonight, live at 7pm, with Melissa Ross on First Coast Connect on WJCT in Jacksonville.

(Well, at least I thought I would have the chance to do so, but our findings will have to wait…)

The wait is over…new post, with scrumptious details.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,970 other followers