Voting by Mail and Ballot Rejection: Lessons from Florida for Elections in the Age of the Coronavirus

New paper by Anna Baringer, Michael C. Herron, and Daniel A. Smith, available here.

Abstract
The coronavirus and its concomitant need for social distancing have increased the attractiveness of voting by mail (VBM). VBM voting is nonetheless not a panacea for election administration in the time of a pandemic, and this is because a widespread move to this form of voting risks exacerbating existing inequities in mail-in ballot rejection rates across voters and jurisdictions. This motivates our examination of over 8.2 million ballots cast in the 2018 General Election in Florida, including 2.6 million VBM ballots, of which approximately 1.2 percent were rejected by local election officials. We theorize as to why rejected VBM ballots might be linked to individual voter characteristics and to election official discretion, offer a battery of descriptive statistics detailing rejected ballots in Florida’s 2018 election, and provide results from a selection
model that analyzes all of the state’s voters in 2018. We find that younger voters and voters needing assistance are disproportionately likely to have their VBM ballots rejected. We also find disproportionately high rejection rates for out-of-state and military dependents. Lastly, we find significant variation in the rejection rates of VBM ballots cast across Florida’s 67 counties,  suggesting a non-uniformity in the way local election officials verify these ballots. As interest in VBM swells in light of the coronavirus, protecting the rights of all voters requires understanding why some voters’ mail ballots are rejected—diminishing their ability to participate in electoral politics—and how this might be rectified.