Herron & Smith: “Race, Party, and the Consequences of Restricting Early Voting in Florida in the 2012 General Election”

Race, Party, and the Consequences of Restricting Early Voting in Florida in the 2012 General Election

Political Research Quarterly

Michael C. Herron and Daniel A. Smith

Abstract

In mid-2011, the Florida legislature reduced the state’s early voting period from fourteen days to eight and eliminated the final Sunday of early voting. We compare observed voting patterns in 2012 with those in the 2008 General Election and find that racial/ethnic minorities, registered Democrats, and those without party affiliation had significant early voting participation drops and that voters who cast ballots on the final Sunday in 2008 were disproportionately unlikely to cast a valid ballot in 2012. Florida’s decision to truncate early voting may have diminished participation rates of those already least likely to vote.

OnlineFirst: February 24, 2014

Available: Full Text (PDF)

Some Thoughts on Differential Racial/Ethnic Rejection Rates of Absentee Ballots in Florida

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.

Some Ruminations on African American early and absentee voting in Miami-Dade

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…

 

 

 

 

Senate Judiciary Committee on Voting Rights

Honored to be mentioned by US Senator Bill Nelson in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in today’s hearing on Voting Rights. The research that he mentioned, which I coauthored with Michael Herron at Dartmouth College, is available here.

Our Op-Ed in Florida Voices: “Counting Ballots in Florida: Where you Live Matters”

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.