State Politics

With half-million absentee ballots turned in for Florida’s primary, Miami-Dade a focal point for problems

A Miami-Dade Elections worker marks a group of absentee ballots in Doral during the 2012 general election.
A Miami-Dade Elections worker marks a group of absentee ballots in Doral during the 2012 general election. AP

More than 540,000 Florida voters had returned absentee ballots in advance of the March 15 presidential primary as of Wednesday, a sign of enthusiasm about the election and the growing popularity of voting by mail.

But even though “count every vote” has been the battle cry in Florida since the 2000 presidential recount, thousands of ballots are arriving at elections offices with flaws that will result in some votes not being counted. At this early date, a disproportionately large number of them are in Miami-Dade County.

Voting by mail is the most convenient way to vote, but safeguards designed to prevent election fraud can result in problems. Some voters forget to sign the front of the ballot envelope, and some voters’ signatures don’t match the ones on file with county elections offices.

University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith tracks the numbers, and on his blog he noted that through Tuesday, 433,000 mail ballots had been cast and 4,483 have been coded as invalid by counties. That’s 1 percent of all mail ballots cast.

According to Smith’s data, Miami-Dade reported 1,870 problem ballots out of 37,213, an astonishing rate of 5 percent of mail ballots cast up to that time. Of the 1,870 mail ballots with issues, 501 of them lacked a signature and the remaining 1,369 involved another form of voter error, such as a mismatched signature.

But the county says an unsigned ballot envelope is not a fatal flaw because the law allows those voters to “cure” the problem by going to an elections office and signing the envelope by 5 p.m. on March 14, the day before Election Day.

In Miami-Dade, as in most counties, the county elections website has extensive information to guide voters on how to properly submit a mail ballot. In Miami as elsewhere, a three-member canvassing board decides which ballots to count and which ones to reject.

“Ultimately, until that three-member canvassing board gets together, that ballot has not been rejected as invalid,” said Miami-Dade’s deputy supervisor of elections, Carolina Lopez.

Tampa Bay voters generally are more careful than their South Florida counterparts. In Pinellas, Smith found, there were 379 suspect mail ballots through Tuesday out of 53,606, or 0.7 percent. Hillsborough reported 298 problem ballots out of 26,065 or 1.1 percent, Smith said, and Pasco flagged 139 out of 14,277, just below the statewide average of 1 percent.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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