Elections

South Florida’s absentee-ballot blues: ‘I am infuriated that I was not able to vote’

Record number of absentee ballots makes election night longer

Precinct workers open and count absentee ballots at the Lyman Community Center in Gulfport during the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.
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Precinct workers open and count absentee ballots at the Lyman Community Center in Gulfport during the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.

Voters and poll workers from both parties in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties have contacted the Miami Herald since Election Day detailing dozens of issues with absentee ballots, ranging from ballots not arriving, arriving late, being returned but apparently getting lost in the mail, or showing on the county websites as not tabulated well after Election Day passed.

There is little data available to quantify the extent of these problems, or say with certainty that the problems were any more significant this election than in past years. But with recounts underway for three key races, triggered by razor thin margins, many who were unable to cast ballots due to problems with the absentee process worry that their vote could have been the one to tip the scale in these tight races.

State elections department data from the 2018 and 2014 midterms show a significant increase in the number of vote-by-mail ballots sent out from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. In all three, more Democrats requested mail ballots than Republicans by a margin of almost 2 to 1, but Republicans returned a higher percentage of ballots.

In Broward, the rate of return of mail ballots was higher in 2018 than in the previous midterm. In Miami-Dade, the rate was about the same. And in Palm Beach, there was a 6 percent lower rate of return this midterm than last.

The public data does not include specific demographic breakdowns, information of where ballots were sent, when ballots were sent, returned, or tabulated, or if the person ended up voting in person instead, making concrete conclusions elusive regarding which party may have suffered more from the vote-by-mail issues.

Still, most of those who contacted the Herald perceived more problems in 2018 than in previous years, and most had successfully voted by mail in at least one previous election. The following is a summary of the types of complaints the Herald received from South Florida voters regarding issues with voting by mail.

Ballots arrived too late or not at all

The most common complaints were from voters who either never received their mail ballot, despite requesting it long before deadline, or received it too late to return it in time to be counted. One staffer from the Broward elections department told the Herald that he heard complaints at early voting locations from hundreds of voters who had requested mail ballots but had not received them and decided to vote in person instead.

“I’m pretty infuriated especially given how close the election was,” said Marissa Krimsky, 32, who never received her ballot and couldn’t vote as a result. Krimsky said she originally registered to vote in Miami-Dade in 2013 and has voted by mail in several subsequent elections without problems. This time, she received her voter ID card to her temporary San Diego address on Oct. 25 but her actual ballot never came.

Katherine Elliott and her husband requested their ballot from Miami-Dade be sent to their Manhattan address a week before the Oct. 31 cutoff for absentee requests. They never arrived so the couple flew to Miami to vote in person on Nov. 6. A dozen people told the Herald that they flew to South Florida to vote on Election Day after not receiving their ballots in the mail.

College students made up a disproportionate number of the people who reported that they did not receive their ballots in time to vote by mail. Hunter Stouffer is a 21-year-old senior at the University of Florida. He said he signed his request for a mail ballot on Oct. 8, and his dad, Dale Stouffer, sent it in to Broward Elections the next day from a local post office. He didn’t receive his ballot until Nov. 3, too late to mail it back with any confidence. Because he had a similar problem in the August primary, Stouffer was able to vote in person when he came home for the weekend for early voting.

“Voting is an important process in my mind, and I’m trying to pass that on to my kids. It’s our right,” said Dale Stouffer. “It kind of pissed me off when he kept telling me he didn’t get his ballot and all of that.”

Out-of-state students who spoke to the Herald from universities in Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and others, could not come home to vote. They were unable to cast votes, despite, in most cases, saying they made repeated efforts to obtain a ballot.

Donna Liberman wrote to the Herald after her son, a student at Northwestern University, received his ballot on Nov. 5, despite having requested it weeks before. “He called us in a panic and my husband told him to run to Fed Ex and have it overnighted so that it would meet the deadline,” Liberman told the Herald. “Unfortunately, it was closing in 10 minutes. So he wouldn’t be able to find an Uber and get to the store in time. We were even willing to pay the $50 overnight fee, but it became impossible.”

Liberman said three of her friends had college-age children who had similar problems. Gabrielle Meli, a student at Princeton University in New Jersey also received her ballot on Nov. 5, despite months of repeated requests via vote.org. She said many of her friends from a high school political science class at Pine Crest School in Broward also had problems getting ballots out of state.

“Many of them had their parents go and physically pick up the ballot and mail it to them because the office of elections was simply not doing its job,” Meli said. “Florida is an outlier in this case, as many of my friends at college did not experience this issue. I think its something really important to talk about and fix.”

Nicole Navarro, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, wrote to the Herald the day after the election saying she still had not received her ballot, despite records that her request for an absentee ballot had been received and the ballot mailed by the Miami-Dade Elections Department.

“I am infuriated that I was not able to vote during this election,” Navarro wrote. “This problem with the mail-in ballots seems to be a systemic issue, one that may have had grave consequences for so many tight races. The burden of these technical issues should not fall on the voters.”

There is no clear explanation for what took so long in these cases. Florida statutes give elections departments two business days to send out a mail ballot after receiving a request. Miami-Dade assistant supervisor of elections Robert Rodriguez said his county, at least, always complied with that requirement.

J.C. Planas, longtime election lawyer and a former Republican state lawmaker, said voters should expect the process of requesting and receiving mail ballots to take a little more than a week, but perhaps longer for out-of-state voters. “It depends on how many other requests come in,” Planas said regarding how long it takes elections departments to act on a request.

The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot was Oct. 31 per state law, and the final day to send them out was Nov. 2. The Palm Beach post reported that 20,700 ballots were sent by elections departments across the state from Nov. 1 through Election Day. The Herald could not independently verify that number.

Ballots that may have been lost in the mail

Though much rarer than reports of not receiving mail ballots at all, were complaints from people who had mailed their ballot back to their elections department, in some cases weeks in advance, only to have them not arrive in time to make the 7 p.m. deadline on election night.

Kirk Nielsen said he mailed his ballot back to Miami-Dade elections on Oct. 29 from a post office in Coral Gables. After the election, his vote was not tabulated by the end Election Day. “It’s definitely strange that it wouldn’t make it across town in much fewer than eight days,” Nielsen told the Herald. “Or did it arrive?”

Lindsay Lecour registered to vote in Surfside and mailed her ballot to Miami-Dade elections around Oct. 23. She didn’t check its status until after the election, only to realize it had not been received. “I have voted absentee for years but never confirmed online,” Lecour wrote. “I guess I just trusted the system to work! Naive.”

Rodriguez from Miami-Dade elections said that the county processed mail ballots the same day they were received. There was no backlog, so they posted their mail totals just 15 minutes after polls closed on election night. As for why it took so long for these ballots to move within the same county, Rodriguez said, “That would be a question for the post office.”

After 266 stray ballots were discovered in the back of a USPS mail-sorting facility in Opa-locka, only to arrive at the elections department well past the deadline for them to be counted, the postal service has opened an investigation into that facility to “verify that all ballots have been handled in accordance to USPS service standards.”

Rumors are circulating on social media of other boxes of ballots sitting undelivered in mail rooms across the state. “Voters deserve to know if their ballots are sitting in a mailing facility,” said Caroline Thompson of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, outside the office of the supervisor of elections.

Uncertainty over whether mail ballots were counted

Especially in Broward County, where thousands of mail ballots weren’t counted until Friday, many voters who had submitted mail ballots wondered if their vote was going to be counted at all. Adding to their concerns was a report from the ACLU showing how votes by mail were 10 times less likely to be counted than votes cast by other means.

Many checked repeatedly online only to see their ballot had been received but not tabulated. For example, Dollie Samuels’ ballot was received by Broward’s elections department on Oct. 17. It did not show online as tabulated until Nov. 8. Other voters reported similar problems. Many said they wondered if they should cast a provisional ballot in person, just in case an issue was discovered with their mail ballot too late for them to submit follow-up paperwork needed to validate it.

Rodriguez said VR Systems, the electronic systems used by both Broward and Miami-Dade, had a three-day delay between tabulation and marking a ballot as tabulated in the voter’s profile. VR changed that to one day in the days following the election to quell voters’ concerns.

McClatchy reporter Caitlin Ostroff contributed.

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