Florida more likely to reject mail ballots from young voters, people of color, ACLU finds

Florida rejected vote-by-mail ballots from young voters and people of color at higher rates during the past two presidential elections, according to a troubling new study from the ACLU of Florida.

The report also found that mail ballots were more likely to be rejected than votes cast at polls during early voting or election day. The rejection rate for these ballots was about 1 percent during both the 2012 and 2016 elections, which is about 10 times higher than in-person voting, according to Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida and the study's author.

There also doesn't exist a uniform process for "curing" a mail ballot invalidated by canvassing boards across the 67 counties. Smith explains that a month before the 2016 general election last November, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker forced Secretary of State Ken Detzner to allow voters whose mailed ballots were rejected for mismatched signatures an opportunity to "cure a signature." A curing process already existed for voters who forgot to sign their mail ballots – since 2013, they've been allowed to mail, fax, email or hand-deliver a signed affidavit and copy of their identification to their county Supervisor of Elections Office before 5 p.m. the Monday before Election Day.

"Judge Walker’s ruling recognized the discrepancy in treatment of [vote-by-mail] return envelopes devoid of a signature and those that were returned with a voter’s certificate signature that did not match the voter registration form on file," Smith wrote in his report. "He ordered Secretary of State Detzner to issue a directive to all Florida [Supervisors of Elections], advising them that Florida’s scheme regarding the treatment of ballots with mismatched signatures was unconstitutional."

Detzner's directive, though, didn't include specific procedures for Supervisors of Elections to notify voters of a rejected ballot and cure process for mismatched signatures. Smith says he's found varying practices across the state, including supervisors notifying voters through mail, email, door-to-door house calls and even Facebook.

"This makes the oversight and accountability of rejected [vote-by-mail] ballots and the cure process nearly impossible," Smith wrote.

During the 2016 election, voters under 30 made up about 9.2 percent of all mail-ballot voters but accounted for almost 31 percent of all rejected mail ballots. In both the 2012 and 2016 elections, about 4 percent of mail ballots cast by the 18-to-21-year-old group was rejected. Surprisingly, voters in the 65-to-104-year-old age group had less than 1 percent of their ballots rejected.

"The conventional wisdom is that older voters – because they may have changed their name, because of infirmity affecting their handwriting – would have higher rejection rates," Smith says. "But it's clear from these data that it's younger voters who are having greater instability with signatures that don't match. … They might not realize the signature they did when they were 16 years old and pre-registering to vote in high school is the signature of record."

The rate of rejected mail ballots worsened between 2012 and 2016 for people of color, especially African Americans.

In the 2012 general election, only 0.9 percent of all mail ballots cast by white voters were "rejected as illegal" by county canvassing board – but the same canvassing board rejected 1.5 percent of mail ballots from black voters; 1.3 percent of mail ballots from Hispanic voters; and 1.8 percent of mail ballots from voters of other racial and ethnic identifies, according to the report. Black and Hispanic voters who cast mail ballots were disproportionately more likely to have their ballot rejected than white voters.

In 2016, ballot rejections increased slightly for black and Hispanic voters to 1.9 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively. That means mail ballots cast by black, Hispanic and other people of color were more than two and a half times as likely to be rejected as mail ballots cast by white voters.

The ACLU report also listed Orange County as having the highest rate of mail ballots rejected in the state during the 2016 election, though Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles disputes this characterization.

Smith says he used numbers provided to him by the state Division of Elections that showed Orange County's canvassing board was rejecting mail ballots at a rate of nearly 4 percent.

Cowles says the data provided to Smith included Orange County's "undeliverable" mail ballots that were sent to voters but returned because of a changed address, for example. Those undeliverable ballots, though, were listed in the state report under the "rejected" category. The actual number of rejected mail ballots in Orange County during the 2016 election was 1,661 ballots, not the 7,558 ballots listed in the report.

"I was shocked when I saw the report," Cowles says.

Cowles says his office alerted the ACLU and Smith before the report was released but the "incorrect" figure was still published.

"Notwithstanding these representations, the report the ACLU produced today failed to modify or even annotate the incorrect data contained in the 'rejection' total for Orange County Vote-by-Mail ballots cast in Florida in the
2016 General Election," Cowles' office said in a statement. "It is the hope of the Orange County Supervisor and his dedicated staff that the ACLU will
contact Dr. Smith to obtain an amended report."

Smith argues that it was the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office that incorrectly listed undeliverable ballots in the same category as rejected ballots in a report to the state.

"I'm using data they reported to the Secretary of State," he says. "I'm not in a position to be asking supervisors to come up with their own information. The problem is I can’t do a data analysis for every one of 67 counties that decides they reported information incorrectly."

Smith says he's not trying to throw county Supervisors of Elections under the bus, but people should focus on the statewide implications of the report to bring better practices to Florida.

"I think we need to step back from individual counties and look at the state numbers, which reflect some troubling issues," he says. "African Americans, Hispanics and other voters are more than twice as likely to cast absentee ballots that were rejected. That's a problematic issue and one that needs to be addressed by Supervisors of Elections just as much as individual voters."

Stay on top of Orlando news and views. Sign up for our weekly Headlines newsletter.
Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.