TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As more Floridians vote by mail, the ACLU expressed concern Wednesday about a lack of uniformity about how ballots are handled by the state’s 67 county supervisors of election.
The civil rights group also warned that young voters and minorities appear to have a greater chance of having their mail-in ballots rejected, according to a report based on the 2012 and 2016 elections.
The ACLU is asking the county elections supervisors to agree to a single set of guidelines to address the issue of ballots that have been rejected because of mismatched signatures. The group wants to ensure that the ballots get counted.
The ACLU’s request is grounded in a report released Wednesday that found a higher rejection of ballots cast by mail in the 2012 and 2016 elections than ballots cast by voters at an assigned precinct or early voting location.
The report, titled “Vote-By-Mail Ballots Cast in Florida,” found county supervisors don’t all use the same coding to document the reasons a vote-by-mail ballot was rejected.
According to the report, young and minority voters were more likely than other voters to have a ballot flagged and go uncorrected -- and ultimately uncounted -- due to a mismatched signature.
Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan questioned how the report was compiled.
“The data is not accurate No. 1, and it’s been interpreted basically on a whim for lack of a better word, because you have to understand we don’t even recognize where these voters are coming from,” Hogan said.
University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith, who authored the report, said the data was provided by SOE offices from across the state. He added that the report is not intended to suggest the supervisors' staffs intentionally discriminated but it shows there's a problem statewide with minority and younger voters ballots being rejected.
Those issues needs to be addressed, he said.
Each mail ballot is reviewed not by a machine but by staff members' eyes when it comes in.
“There is no bias one way or the other,” Hogan said. “We are just looking for a proper signature.”
If there is a question about a ballot, it goes to a three-member canvassing board, which determines if the ballot should be rejected.
“When we are evaluating the signature, we don’t know if it’s a black person or Hispanic or if they’re young, because we're not looking at that data,” Hogan said.
The ACLU of Florida submitted a series of recommendations about how to establish statewide rules on the rejected signatures.
But the civil rights organization was unable to say why certain groups’ signatures are rejected more often.
“Whether your vote counts or not should not depend on your ZIP code,” ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon told The News Service of Florida. “It should not depend on the county that you live in. We need more uniform standards.”
Hogan and others said many of the problems highlighted in the report can be addressed if people would read and follow instructions on the vote-by-mail ballots.
He admitted that voting by mail has risks.
“I’m amazed at how many people don’t have a signature anymore,” Hogan said. “They have a mark for us to judge. There are no letters there. It’s just a bunch of scribbling. How do you test that?”
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, who serves as president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said supervisors are following the law, which requires the county office to contact voters whose signatures are rejected.
“I understand all of the data that the ACLU based their findings on,” Lux said in an interview Wednesday. “I’ll be more interested to see what their findings are in 2018 and after the 2020 election, just for the comparisons.”
Lux, who said he was given a preview of the ACLU’s findings, said the age, political party or race of a voter isn’t displayed when canvassing boards review a signature.
Lux also said that, under a 2016 federal court ruling, county supervisors must contact individuals whose signatures have been rejected. Prior to the court ruling, such a service was considered optional, he said.
A state law passed in 2004 had allowed voters to remedy a rejected mail-in ballot if their signature was omitted but did not allow a fix if the voters’ signature did not match the one on file.
In his 2016 ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker called the 2004 law "indefensible" and likely to disenfranchise voters.
In response to Walker’s ruling, the state legislature in 2017 approved changes allowing a voter whose signature on a mail-in ballot that doesn’t match the one on file with elections authorities to fill out an affidavit to correct the error.
The 2017 law requires elections officials to make a good-faith effort -- before 5 p.m. the day before the election -- to contact voters whose ballots were rejected, to give them an opportunity an to submit an affidavit amending their ballot.
The law also says elections officials must allow voters to use a Florida driver's license or state identification card to verify a mail-in ballot.
For the ACLU, it’s problematic that the law also gives local officials control over how to contact voters whose signatures have been rejected.
Smith, the report's author, said there are a number of variables that could account for the higher number of minority signatures being rejected.
“There are other reasons, culturally, that may lead to an individual having a signature that is definitely theirs, and is an authentic signature, that doesn’t match with what is on file,” Smith said. “There might also be cultural biases with respect to the processing of those ballots, people not realizing the name of an Asian-American name that looks slightly different or is a very short name that doesn’t have variation in the type of signature that might lead to a rejection rate.”
Smith said biases from those reviewing signatures could range from street names that denote a part of a community to names that contain hyphens or apostrophes, which tend to be more common among African-Americans.
For example, Smith said that Hispanic names are frequently comprised of the last name of an individual’s father, followed by his or her mother’s last name. That’s how the name would appear on official forms, but the individual would simply use his or her father’s last name as a signature, resulting in a discrepancy with what is in the voter file, Smith said.
The ACLU is calling for a statewide process to help county staff process vote-by-mail ballots and allow voters to fix rejected signatures.
In addition, the ACLU wants a uniform design for mail ballots and return envelopes, and is asking the Division of Elections to study procedures for curing an invalid mailed ballot. The group also wants the state Legislature to create guidelines to notify voters about rejected ballots and how to fix the issue.
“In order to protect your vote and in order to ensure that your vote is counted, you need to take steps to track your ballot. You need to take steps to cure it if your ballot is rejected by your supervisor of elections,” Simon said.
In the 2016 election, 28.7 percent of the 9.6 million Floridians who voted used the vote-by-mail process.
Of the 3.57 million people who voted in the Aug. 28 primary, just under 36 percent -- or 1.28 million voters -- used the vote-by-mail process, according to the Division of Elections.
News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.