The Functional Differences between Early Voting and In-Person Absentee Ballots in Florida

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.