What could go wrong when voting absentee? Plenty, it turns out

Thousands of absentee ballots were rejected in Miami-Dade and Broward. Blame penmanship, or the post office, or voters dying.

12/07/2012 1:48 PM

12/08/2012 11:11 PM

Absentee ballots are often touted as a pain-free, easy way to cast a vote without having to stand in long lines at a polling station.

But nearly 2,500 Miami-Dade County voters had their absentee ballots rejected this election in what amounts to a wake-up call for those who ignore or fall prey to the pitfalls of not voting in person.

In Broward and Palm Beach counties, about 2,100 and 1,400 absentees were rejected, respectively.

A majority of absentee ballots were rejected because they arrived well after Nov. 6 at the elections office.

Many voters were angry. They cast their mail-in ballots from home for convenience, only to face a greater inconvenience when their vote didn’t count.

“I voted absentee because I realized lines in Miami-Dade County would be horrendous and I didn’t feel I wanted to deal with that hassle,” Patricia Tepedino, a 45-year-old Democratic Obama voter, wrote in an email.

Tepedino’s ballot was received Nov. 19. So it didn’t count. And now Tepedino says the experience “kind of does” give her pause about absentee-ballot voting in the future. Others said this was the first and last time they’d vote absentee.

Some voters forgot to sign their ballots. The county elections office negated others because the signature on the ballot didn’t match the voter’s on-file John Hancock.

And four voters appear to have died before their absentee ballots were received at the elections offices in Miami-Dade and Broward, which also cancelled the attempted votes of four convicted felons.

The Miami Herald contacted more than 1,000 Miami-Dade voters, hundreds of whom responded by email and by phone with explanations and recriminations concerning their rejected absentee ballots.

A large number of voters blamed the post office or the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which interrupted mail service in New York, where many Floridians live part-time. They said their ballots often arrived from the county just before or on Election Day.

A few criticized consulates or embassies from Abu Dhabi to Mexico to Jerusalem.

A family of three in Cali, Colombia had all of their ballots tossed for technical reasons. In Jerusalem, 56-year-old Ben Rose said he put his absentee ballot in the mail along with his wife’s at the same time. His ballot arrived Nov. 19 and didn’t count. His wife’s made it Oct. 21.

More people than ever voted by absentee ballot this year — nearly 2.4 million in Florida. About 245,000 came from Miami-Dade, of which about 1 percent were rejected, about the same rate as in 2008.

Only Pinellas County in Tampa Bay had more absentee ballots cast, about 250,000, of which 0.6 percent were rejected. Voters in neighboring Hillsborough County cast 171,000, of which 1 percent were rejected.

Broward County cast the third-highest number of absentee ballots in Florida, about 172,000, of which 1.2 percent were rejected.

Palm Beach County, which had the fifth-highest number of absentee ballots cast, about 129,000, rejected about 1.1 percent.

All together, that means more than 9,100 votes were rejected in the five counties with the largest number of absentee ballots.

Total statewide figures won’t be available until the end of the month and will change as more absentee ballots arrive late.

President Barack Obama’s margin of victory over Mitt Romney in Florida was less than 1 percent — about 74,000 votes.

Obama’s campaign made an unprecedented push for Democrats to vote by absentee ballot this year because the Republican governor and Legislature reduced the number of days for in-person early voting, which Democrats typically dominate.

In addition to cutting early voting days, lawmakers lengthened the ballot by printing the full text of some constitutional amendments. That led to long lines at some polling stations that didn’t have enough capacity.

The process of reviewing the ballots is nonpartisan, but partisan and racial disparities emerged.

Hispanic Republicans — who make up 72 percent of the GOP in Miami-Dade — are the most likely to vote absentee and the least likely to have their ballot rejected, with a cancellation rate of just 0.56 percent, according to a Miami Herald analysis.

Black voters registered as independents in Miami-Dade had the highest rejection rate: 2.35 percent.

Overall, black voters had the highest (1.2 percent) and Hispanics the lowest (0.79) rejection rate.

University of Florida professor Dan Smith, who plans to soon publish a Florida-voting study with Dartmouth College professor Michael Herron, said the data indicate that voters familiar with the requirements of absentee-ballot voting are more likely to have their votes counted. Still, he said, while it might be easier to vote by absentee ballot, it can be tougher to get that vote counted.

“Absentee ballots are processed and verified using different standards than regular ballots,” Smith said, “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.”

Election Day and early in-person voters can personally protest if they encounter a problem at the polls and, if need be, can cast a provisional ballot. But absentee voters take a leap of faith when they drop the ballot in the mail. They have to trust the mail service to deliver their ballot on time and the county elections workers, who have to ensure that the ballots were lawfully cast.

Had the four Miami-Dade and Broward absentee-ballot voters who died before Election Day voted early in person, their votes would have counted. If their absentee ballots had been received by the elections offices before their deaths, the votes could have been counted as well.

A large number of voters said they did not know their ballots were rejected until they were contacted by The Miami Herald. The county says it is notifying those voters by mail.

Miami-Dade’s deputy elections supervisor, Christina White, said the county verified that the deceased voters — and not some fraudster — had filled out their absentee ballots, which can be the most fraud-prone voting method.

White said the county has to follow state law, which says absentee ballots mailed within the United States have to reach the office by 7 p.m. Election Day, and that overseas ballots must be in five days after that.

White acknowledged that a number of voters complained they didn’t get their ballots soon after they were ordered. She said the county sought help from the state and the U.S. Postal Service. But there was only so much the county could do. The postal service said it’s not to blame.

Then there’s the matter of signature-verification on ballots to stop fraud.

“When you go to vote on Election Day, you have to provide an ID. We don’t have that ability with an absentee ballot,” White said. “The only way to do that is to compare the signature. Does it happen that signatures change over time? Yes. We try to tell people to update their signature.”

Bradley Baker plans to do just that now that he learned his ballot didn’t count.

“I wouldn’t be surprised since the signature they have on file was from 30 years ago,” said Baker, a 47-year-old Coral Gables Republican.

At just 27, Jorge Suarez figured his signature has already changed, which is why his ballot cast from Bermuda was rejected.

“I’m frustrated, of course, but it’s probably down to the fact that I don’t sign papers like I did when I was a teenager anymore,” Suarez, a registered Democrat, said by email.

Brian Owen, a 51-year-old Republican working for the Air Force in Britain, had a different signature problem. He said he emailed a scanned copy of his signature. That’s not allowed, but faxing is.

“Faxing from overseas is difficult and timing did not allow me enough time to mail the ballot,” Owen, a Romney voter, said.

Ivan Gonzalez, a 17-year Coast Guard veteran, encountered a fax problem in Connecticut, where he is stationed.

“Unfortunately the fax machine was offline and/or busy the whole time I was trying to fax over and so I decided to scan it,” Gonzalez, a 39-year-old Republican, said by email.

Marc Saphir, a 43-year-old Army officer serving in Afghanistan, had his ballot rejected for technical reasons.

“As far as my feelings as a service member and my ballot not being counted while deployed here, well, it is distressing,” Saphir, an independent Obama voter, wrote in an email.

Juan Torrejon, a 39-year-old Miami Republican, said his absentee ballot arrived the Saturday before the election.

“I was not sure it would make it by the deadline to be counted if I deposited in the post office,” he said, “so I voted in my precinct on Election Day.”

Voters like David V. Turner took it all in stride. Though a Republican, he faulted his party for what he called voter-suppression efforts and cheered Obama’s election.

“There’s a beauty in that,” he said, adding that he found some irony in the fact that his ballot was likely derailed by Hurricane Sandy when he sent it from New York.

“It’s funny to think I was away from my home state — seemingly safe from hurricanes in late October — only to get slammed by one in NYC while Florida was just fine,” he said.

Gabriel Jose Gonzalez, a 32-year-old independent from Miami, also had his ballot rejected for tardiness. He wasn’t too upset.

“I have very little patience when it comes to waiting, specifically long lines, this is why I have always voted through absentee ballot,” he said. “I also hear voter stories of having issues with their votes when they vote at a poll station, so I figure both processes have their issues.”

Miami Herald staff writers Amy Sherman, Daniel Chang and Charles Rabin and Tampa Bay Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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