Voting by mail popular in pandemic, but no ‘panacea’

By Dara Kam
News Service of Florida

Floridians are flooding elections supervisors with requests for mail-in ballots as they seek a safer way to cast ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but some experts warn that absentee voting is not a panacea.

Research shows that Black, Hispanic and young voters are more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected or received too late to be counted on Election Day.

Voting by mail “is safe in a pandemic,” Michael Herron, a Dartmouth College political science professor who has conducted extensive research on Florida elections, told The News Service of Florida.

“That’s obviously a huge benefit. But it has some rigidities that don’t exist in in-person voting,” he said. “The voters have to be very, very attentive to issues of timeliness and signatures. Those just don’t exist in regular, in-person voting.”

Voting by mail is “not a panacea for election administration in the time of a pandemic, and this is because a widespread move to this form of voting risks exacerbating existing inequities in mail-in ballot rejection rates across voters and jurisdictions,” Herron, University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith and Anna Baringer, one of Smith’s students, wrote in a study of Florida’s 2018 general election published in April.

Even Floridians who are experienced, in-person voters have a higher chance of having ballots rejected when they switch to voting by mail, according to an analysis by Smith of Florida’s March presidential primary election.

Smith found that voters who cast ballots in person in 2016 and 2018 but switched to mail-in voting for the presidential primary were twice as likely to have their ballots rejected than similar voters who voted by mail in the previous two elections.

“There’s nothing more obvious that these are two separate processes and there’s some learning that needs to be done. There should be an obligation, therefore, to assist voters in understanding the vote-by-mail process,” Smith told the News Service in a phone interview.

Smith also found that Black and Hispanic voters were twice as likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected than White voters.

Also, minority voters were twice as likely to have their ballots not counted because they arrived after a deadline of 7 p.m. on Election Day, Smith’s analysis showed.

According to Dwight Bullard, political director for New Florida Majority, some Black voters see casting their ballots in person as their only option.
Photo special to the Outlook

“My findings consistently point to the fact that Black and Hispanic voters are more likely to have their VBM (vote by mail) ballots rejected, and that the effect of COVID-19 will have an even greater disparate impact on voters of color in Florida when it comes to their ability to cast a VBM ballot that counts,” Smith wrote in a June report on behalf of plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to expand Florida’s vote-by-mail procedures.

Priorities USA, Dream Defenders and other plaintiffs who filed the legal challenge sought, among other things, to extend the deadline for mail-in ballots to be returned. Under a settlement reached last month, Secretary of State Laurel Lee pledged to “educate” and “encourage” county supervisors of elections about a variety of vote-by-mail procedures that were at the heart of the lawsuit.

“The big question is what’s going to happen come November when you’re having millions of people who are inexperienced who don’t vote by mail typically, and what are the supervisors doing to make sure that their vote is going to count,” Smith said.

Early voting started last Monday in many counties in the Aug. 18 primary elections for state and local races, after weeks of surging numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. While roughly one-third of Floridians typically vote by mail, supervisors expect at least double that number for the primaries and Nov. 3 general election.

The pandemic has led to political parties and organizers pushing for increased use of vote-by mail ballots. But for some Black voters, casting their ballots in person is the only option, according to New Florida Majority political director Dwight Bullard.

“It’s great to, as an organizer say, ‘This is the safest possible means to do it’ … But also there is a recognition of how much that particular community — Black voters over the age of 60 — have given to get to this point. The risk of death has been part of that process for them for a long time, makes them very adamant,” Bullard, a former state senator who is also president of the South Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP, told the News Service.

Bullard pointed to his 77-year-old father as an example. Edward Bullard, a former state representative, was still weighing whether to vote by mail, his son said last week.

Older Black voters — who are more at risk of complications from COVID-19 than younger voters — are prepared to wear facemasks, use hand sanitizer and socially distance from other voters so they can cast their ballots in person, Bullard said.

Black Americans’ decades-long struggle for voting rights “is what’s fueling certain subgroups to say screw the pandemic,” he said.

“I’ve got to get out here and exercise the franchise. I’ve got to do it. I have concerns, but I need to have that tactile moment of putting my ballot in the machine, getting my sticker, and walking out with a reassurance that my vote will be counted,” Bullard said, describing the thinking of many older Black voters.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat who is running for the state Senate, said “a great percentage” of people polled by his campaign intended to vote by mail in the Senate district that includes parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

“But there’s still a subset of people, especially within the Black community, who don’t trust the system,” said Jones, who is Black.

In every election, the vast majority of ballots that aren’t counted are received after the 7 p.m. deadline on Election Day, according to elections officials.

Missing signatures on mail-in ballot envelopes are the biggest problem with ballots received before the deadline, according to elections experts. Others are rejected because the signatures don’t match those that are on file with county elections supervisors or because the ballots weren’t filled out properly.

Florida law requires supervisors to allow voters to “cure” ballots that are not properly filled out or ballots that have signature mismatches.

But there’s no way to fix ballots that come in late.

Mail-in ballots can be dropped off at county elections offices until the 7 p.m. deadline on Election Day. Most elections supervisors have bags or boxes at early-voting sites where people can hand-deliver their mail-in ballots. Other supervisors are setting up curbside drop-offs at early-voting sites or the supervisors’ offices so voters don’t have to get out of their cars.

“We’re encouraging folks to physically walk them into the SOE (supervisor of elections),” Bullard said. “Of course, that’s now prompting a discussion around, are the SOEs making themselves available for that drop off.”

Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci said his office is “amping up” vote-by-mail education on its website along with other efforts.

“I’m doing a lot of public speaking, and I know all of the political parties and groups are out there educating their voters and that’s the way it should be,” he said in an interview.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump continues to rail against vote-by-mail and warn that its use will result in a “rigged election.” The Republican president appears to be singling out states that have decided to send mail-in ballots or applications to all registered voters. In contrast, Floridians have to request mail-in ballots.

Fraudulent ballots aren’t a problem in Florida’s “no excuse” vote-by-mail system, a process first authorized in 2002, elections officials insist.

“But there’s so much misinformation out there that it’s certainly been a challenge. We’re all concerned about fraud. But we have a lot of protections in place, and we don’t really see any, certainly no massive, fraud. That message is completely erroneous and false,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley told the News Service.

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