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Mail ballots from nursing home residents, entire family didn’t count in Florida primary

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Mail ballots from nursing home residents, entire family didn’t count in Florida primaryMail ballots from nursing home residents, entire family didn’t count in Florida primary

Wayne Tinker was among more than 262,000 Miami-Dade County voters who cast a mail ballot in last week’s primary elections — and among the thousands of voters whose ballots didn’t count.

As a resident of the Jackson Memorial Long-Term Care Center in Allapattah, the 65-year-old Tinker relied on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver his ballot by the time polls closed on Election Day. But records obtained by the Miami Herald show that his ballot and the mail ballots of eight other residents at the center — closed to visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic — weren’t received until the day after the election.

Their votes were among more than 10,000 rejected in South Florida during the Aug. 18 election as an unprecedented number of voters chose to cast mail ballots. Statewide, at least double that number were tossed, according to Dan Smith, a University of Florida professor who tracks and studies Florida’s rejected mail ballots.

And in November’s presidential election, the number of discarded votes in Florida is expected to balloon as coronavirus-driven voting patterns collide with Florida’s oft-challenged mail ballot laws.

“The pandemic is forcing individuals into a process where their odds of having their ballot rejected increases,” Smith said in an interview. “Tie inexperience into the equation and the rates are going to multiply.”

In Florida, where anyone can request a mail ballot without providing a reason, there are two main make-or-break rules: a 7 p.m. election night deadline and a signature-match requirement. While ballots cast in person are rarely invalidated, Smith’s studies have found that about 1% of all mail ballots were rejected statewide in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections — a statistic that can prove consequential in tight elections.

And in a state known for the tightest of November votes, election supervisors are braced for a historic surge in mail ballots this year even as the budget-constrained USPS warns that Florida’s deadlines for requesting and sending in mail ballots make it more likely that votes will arrive too late to count.

“My message to the voters is: Don’t wait,” said Christina White, the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections. “When you get your ballot within a couple of days vote it and mail it. Don’t forget to sign it, of course.”

This election, discussions about vote-by-mail have been dominated by largely unfounded accusations from President Donald Trump that widespread mail voting is rife with fraud. But in Florida, controversies around mail voting have often focused on rejected ballots, and the laws that regulate whether ballots will count.

Florida’s Republican-led Legislature took steps last year to help voters fix signature problems with their mail ballots by requiring election officials to call, email or text voters “as soon as possible” after a ballot is flagged. But lawmakers left the state’s 7 p.m. election night deadline intact for receiving ballots in the mail. That deadline and a prohibition on ballot gathering — a process that allowed one person to turn in multiple ballots on behalf of others — were challenged on the eve of the March presidential primary election by several Florida voters and left-leaning advocacy organizations, but the case was settled last month as Republican organizations got involved in the legal fight. The result: The state must launch a voter education campaign.

“This lawsuit was an attack on Florida’s strong protections against vote-by-mail fraud,” Republican Party of Florida general counsel Ben Gibson said in a statement after the lawsuit was settled. “We will continue to fight any effort by the Democrats to compromise the safety and security of elections in Florida.”

Election data available only to political campaigns and obtained by the Miami Herald this week from Florida’s Aug. 18 primary election in Miami-Dade County suggests that voters throughout the county and across the political spectrum have reason to be worried about whether their ballot will count. Most rejections can be prevented by the voter by following the rules.

At least 1,843 Republicans’ ballots were tossed in the Aug. 18 election and 3,719 ballots cast by Democrats. Independents, or voters without party affiliation, were the most likely to be affected. They cast 21% of the mail ballots in the August election, but were responsible for 27% of all rejected ballots. About 3.5% of all mail ballots cast by independent voters were rejected, compared to about 2% for Republicans and about 2.7% for Democrats.

Those numbers followed a deluge of 2.3 million mail ballots across Florida as political parties and the pandemic pushed voters to register for mail ballots in unprecedented numbers. Of the nearly 3.9 million voters statewide who participated in the Aug. 18 election, 60% voted by mail, 25% on Election Day and about 15% at early voting centers that are open for roughly two weeks before an election in Florida.

A spokesman for the Florida Division of Elections said the state does not yet have a final tally for the number of rejected mail ballots statewide in Florida, and won’t until late September. But Smith, the University of Florida professor, said data he obtained through political sources shows that the number was greater than 20,000 as of midweek.

Smith analyzes rejected vote-by-mail data in part to find disparities in rejection rates. His research has found that voters between the ages of 18 and 21 were eight times more likely to have their mail ballots not count than voters older than 65 in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Similarly, Smith and several colleagues have found that mail ballots cast by Black and Hispanic voters are more likely to be rejected than those cast by white voters, and that votes cast by new mail voters were more likely to be invalid than those cast by voters familiar with the process.

“If you’re going to go through the process, you probably actually want your vote to count,” said Smith.

Mail ballots can be rejected for many reasons. Sometimes voters stuff multiple ballots into a single envelope. Sometimes they vote by mail and then die before Election Day. Sometimes a signature doesn’t match what election officials have in their files. And, most commonly, the signature is missing altogether.

In a few cases, records show that entire families had their ballots rejected.

Avery Ugent, a Pinecrest retiree, told the Miami Herald Thursday that he took his ballot and six more for family members to the post office at the Town & County Plaza in Kendall on Aug. 18 — Election Day — and decided to send them through the mail after a postal worker assured him they would make it in time. Ugent, a Republican who said his entire family intends to vote for Trump this fall, said he encouraged his family to vote by mail because it increases the likelihood that they’ll participate in elections.

“I made sure everything was done right,” said Ugent, 73. “Of course, I waited until the last day. But I was assured by the postal official it’s going right to the right facility that night and not to worry.”

Their ballots arrived the following day, Aug. 19.

That’s the same day that the elections office received ballots from the nine residents of Jackson Health Longterm Care Center. A spokeswoman said ballots were sent in the mail before Election Day, but voting was complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Traditionally, the Miami-Dade County Elections Department visits Jackson Long Term Care Center and provides supervised voting for the residents for every election,” said spokeswoman Lidia Amoretti. “Due to COVID-19 and our no-visitor policy, that process has changed. For this year’s election, residents had to fill out … ballots, which were later placed in the mail the day before the due date of August 18.”

Florida’s August primary, which lacked a single statewide contest, was dominated by local races, ballot questions and primaries for state legislative seats. But the number of ballots rejected in November, when Trump faces a challenge from Democratic nominee Joe Biden, could make a difference in Florida in the presidential election, which four years ago was decided by about 112,000 votes.

Two years ago, for instance, there were about 430,000 rejected mail ballots around the country. About 32,000 of those were rejected in Florida, where Rick Scott’s winning margin in his U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson was fewer than 10,000 votes.

There were at least 1 million more voters requesting mail ballots in Florida’s August primary than there were in the 2018 November elections, and most of those voters have already signed up to receive a mail ballot in the presidential election. Most ballots will be mailed out to Florida voters between Sept. 24 and Oct. 1.

With only about a month until mail ballots go out again, several candidates gathered outside the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections headquarters this week to call on state and local election officials to find a solution to cut down on the number of rejected votes.

“We know that though it might be too late for this election cycle, but what we are asking is Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Supervisor of Elections Christina White to work together to find a solution for us to be able to make sure that these ballots are not lost and that every vote is counted,” said Jessica Laguerre Hylton, a Democrat who lost a primary for a south Miami-Dade state House seat by 221 votes.

Hylton was joined by Rhonda Rebman Lopez, a Republican who lost a state House primary race by 148 votes. “We need to make sure that any voter that tried to vote in these unprecedented, suppressing times of the pandemic, that their vote is counted now,” she said.

White, the Miami-Dade elections supervisor, is preparing to send out close to 500,000 mail ballots in early October, more than she sent in all of the 2016 presidential election. But she and other election officials pushed against extending the election night deadline in federal court this year when three progressive groups — Alianza for Progress, the Alliance for Retired Americans and Priorities USA — plus seven voters sued the state to demand that all ballots postmarked by Election Day be counted, as is done in California. That lawsuit was ultimately consolidated with the lawsuit filed against the state in March and then settled.

White, whose office encouraged mail voting heading into this election season, argued in court that extending the deadline would throw the entire post-election calendar out of whack. She told the Miami Herald that she’s encouraging voters to fill out and send in mail ballots as soon as they get them, partly to make sure they arrive on time but also to give those voters time to “cure” a problem should the canvassing board flag their ballots as problematic. Voters are informed — through phone calls, texts and email addresses they are asked to provide when they request mail-in ballots — if there is a problem with their ballot so they can fix the issue before Election Day.

Her staffers also visit the USPS distribution center in Opa-locka three times on Election Day to pick up ballots, including a final visit at the 7 p.m. deadline. But even with those efforts, there were 3,074 mail ballots delivered in the two days after the election. Another 2,584 mail ballots arrived late in Broward County, an elections supervisor spokesman said Wednesday.

Those ballots aren’t even considered by a local canvassing board, the appointed body that oversees post-election audits, recounts and decisions such as whether to reject a mail ballot with a questionable signature. This election, White said the percentage of ballots rejected by the Miami-Dade canvassing board actually went down.

“The law is very clear on what we can accept and what we cannot. There isn’t a lot of discretion on the part of the canvassing board,” White said, noting that missing signatures on the envelope are among the biggest problems. “I’m hoping these voters who had this happen to them in this primary will remember to sign in the future.”

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