Please, Floridians’ absentee ballots must count

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Julio Galligaris sorts through mailed-in ballots at the Miami-Dade Election Department.
Julio Galligaris sorts through mailed-in ballots at the Miami-Dade Election Department. Getty Images

The powerful swing state of Florida, of all places, should be working extra hard to ensure every vote is counted. But the state is failing miserably, according to a new study showing that mail-in ballots are 10 times more likely to be tossed out than votes cast on Election Day or at early voting sites. And measures should be taken to correct the problem — and fast.

The study, conducted for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida by the University of Florida political science department chairman Daniel Smith, found that roughly 1 percent of all ballots cast by mail in the state are rejected.

That amounted to about 28,000 votes in 2016 and 24,000 votes in 2012 – significant totals in a swing state where the margin of victory has been fewer than 1,000 votes in recent memory.

Yet, absentee ballots are increasingly popular. In the 2016 election, 29 percent of all ballots in Florida were cast by mail, and the number is expected to rise in November.

The rejection rate varied by county. That same year, almost 2 percent of mail ballots were rejected in Miami-Dade (third worst in the state), and about 1.5 percent were tossed in Broward (seventh worst) and about 1 percent in Monroe (23rd). Not sure what these variables signify.

But particularly troubling — and concerning — are the disparities by race and age of those discarded ballots. The rejection rate for Hispanic and black voters was almost twice the rate for white voters. Meanwhile, voters ages 18 to 21 had four percent of their ballots rejected, compared with 0.5 percent of voters over 65.

According to the study, most mailed ballots are rejected because voters fail to sign the envelope or because their signatures doesn’t match what’s on file at their county’s election office. But a person’s signature changes with age. How is that being addressed?

In 2016, a federal judge ordered the state to require counties to give voters a chance to correct their signatures, but the study found that the rejection rate actually rose for Hispanics and black voters that year. Elections officials choose how aggressively they reach out to voters with flawed but fixable mailed ballots. Based on the findings, most don’t do so aggressively enough — and that needs addressing.

There should be greater statewide uniformity in the design of mail ballots envelopes and where to sign them. For example, in Miami-Dade, some voters easily miss the spot where to sign their ballot. There should be greater uniformity in the procedures employed by supervisors of elections offices to validate absentee ballots and the Florida statewide voter history file should say why a voter’s mail ballot was rejected.

And about young voters’ rejected ballots. A recent study in Virginia found that many college students fail to return their ballots because they’re so unaccustomed to using postal mail that they don’t know where to buy stamps, even though they really don’t need a stamp in Miami-Dade and other counties. The U.S. Postal Service routinely delivers ballots that are missing postage and later settles up with election offices.

But why not provide postage at the start? Broward began doing so in 2015; the rest of the state should follow suit.

The Legislature should demonstrate its commitment to equitable, accessible elections by taking up the report’s recommendations as soon as possible — please.

This is too important.