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Following the Currents that Guide Florida's Future
How will changes in Florida voting laws affect Tuesday's election?
Joe Saunders
A tight presidential election in a high-profile swing state. A long ballot, with federal state and local races swelled by 11 proposed constitutional amendments up for Florida voters' approval this year. And numerous election law changes in the Sunshine State since the last presidential election. A lot of ingredients are in place this year for a decidedly busy Election Day, even taking into account the growing popularity of early voting and the number of absentee voters who won't be clogging the polling places on Tuesday. Florida Voices asked parties with long experience in elections, what can we expect at the polls Tuesday?
Ron Labaski
Lobbyist, Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections

In 2011, there were substantial changes made to the Florida Election Code. Questions have arisen whether some of these will adversely affect voters or the election process.

The short answer is “no.”

This year, the Florida Legislature reapportioned the state, creating new congressional districts, Florida House, and Senate districts. The Legislature moved expeditiously through the process of creating districts that were approved by the Florida Supreme Court. County supervisors of elections then placed voters in the appropriate precincts. The supervisors have provided each voter with their new Voter Information Card. Therefore, voters should be able to locate their proper precincts on Election Day, based on the address on their card.

In 2012, early voting in each county began 10 days prior to the election, rather than the previous 15 days. Early voting now stops on the Saturday prior to the general election. Previously, each Saturday and Sunday early voting timeframe was limited to the aggregate of eight hours. Now, the two Saturdays and one Sunday of early voting have not less than six hours and not more than 12 hours.

Therefore, the weekend-days now provide for as many as 36-hours of early voting, compared with the previous 16-hours that were available. Also, having early voting locations open for as many as 12 hours each weekday should allow voters to more easily cast their ballots prior to work or after work. Early indications are that voters took this opportunity to vote early, turning out in large numbers.

The general election ballot will be long, primarily due to 11 constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the Florida Legislature. The Legislature, in proposing constitutional amendments, is not limited in the content of its proposals and, therefore, several are lengthy. Hopefully, voters will review these amendments prior to going to their polling place, otherwise on Nov. 6 we may see longer lines than usual.

Changes were adopted in 2011 concerning voters who have moved and do not update that change with the supervisor of elections prior to Nov. 6. Under the new law, if voters have moved from one county to another and have not changed their address prior to Election Day, they will be required to cast a provisional ballot. Those who have moved within the county will still be allowed to vote a regular ballot at their appropriate precinct, if they execute a Change of Legal Residence Affidavit.

Voters may change their address by phone or electronic means at any time prior to voting. It is anticipated that there will be a significant number of county-to-county changes in certain counties throughout the state, which will increase the number of provisional ballots cast.

There is significant confusion concerning provisional ballots. Those ballots are identical to a regular ballot, but are merely handled by the supervisor of elections differently. If the voter casts a provisional ballot, is in the proper precinct, and is a registered Florida voter, the provisional ballot will be counted.

Any provisional ballot that has been cast will be reviewed by the County Canvassing Board, which will review the information on the voter’s Certificate and Affirmation, information provided by the voter, and any information or evidence that is presented by the supervisor of elections concerning the status of the voter.

A provisional ballot will be counted unless the Canvassing Board determines, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the person was not entitled to vote. Ballots will not be rejected due to the Canvassing Board not having time to review and process them as the benefit of doubt will go to the voter.

Daniel A. Smith
Professor, Political Science, University of Florida

A lesson all Floridians should have learned from the 2000 presidential election meltdown is that state law requires the uniform application across all 67 counties in Florida of the electoral code. Nonetheless, reports are surfacing that high numbers of voters in some counties are having their absentee ballots rejected by local canvassing boards, and still others indicate that voters turning out to cast early ballots at the polls are being required to vote provisional ballots.

For an absentee ballot to count, the envelope in which it was mailed must have a voter signature. The voter’s signature must match a signature on file with a relevant Supervisor of Elections Office. County canvassing boards – made up of three members, one of whom is the local supervisor of elections (unless he or she is running for re-election) – are responsible for determining if a given absentee ballot should be accepted or rejected.

Historically, and again in the 2012 presidential election, problems with a voter’s signature are associated with rejected absentee ballots.

This past week, in Palm Beach County, a woman who cast an absentee ballot that was deemed “rejected as illegal” by the county canvassing board, apparently because her signature on the back of the envelope didn’t match the record on file with the supervisor, filed a lawsuit to challenge her vote not being counted. The circuit judge who heard the case on Friday, while sympathetic to the 61-year-old’s claim that it was indeed her signature on the back of the envelope, told her from the bench, “Logic, common sense, equity, the American way – they’re all on your side.” But, “[W]hen I read the statutes I’m not convinced logic, common sense and the law reside in the same house.”

And in Volusia County, news accounts report that more than 400 voters have already have had their absentee ballots rejected by the local canvassing board, including more than 150 voters whose signatures on the back of the privacy envelopes apparently didn’t match what was on file with the local Supervisor of Elections Office.

Voters whose absentee ballots are rejected for signature problems appear to be out of luck. There are no second chances if signatures do not line up on absentee ballots. If an absentee ballot is rejected by the canvassing board, a voter may not legally cast a replacement ballot at the polls.

In 2008, according to a survey of Florida’s 67 Supervisors of Elections conducted after the presidential contest by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 18,456 absentee ballots were rejected statewide, roughly 1 percent of the total absentee ballots cast. Of those absentee ballots deemed to be invalid, 30.5 percent were received after the close of polls on Election Day, 34.0 percent did not have a signature on the return envelope, and 25.8 percent had a non-matching signature. A couple dozen more absentee ballots were rejected because there were multiple ballots in an envelope, the envelope returned that was returned was unofficial, or the envelope wasn’t sealed.

Turning now to problems with voting in person, Florida law allows individuals who claim to be properly registered and eligible to vote but whose eligibility cannot be verified at the polls, to cast a provisional ballot. While no hard data on the status of these ballots from Florida’s 67 counties is yet available for the 2012 election, if history is any guide, voters who are required to cast provisional ballots will be very unlikely to have their votes tabulated.

Compared to the rejection rates of absentee ballots, voters casting provisional ballots at the polls four years ago were even more likely to have their ballots rejected by canvassing boards. Indeed, over half of the 35,635 provisional ballots cast during early voting period or on Election Day in 2008 were subsequently rejected. Most of those whose provisional ballots were rejected were determined not to be registered in Florida or had voted in the wrong county (and failed to update their addresses); a few others didn’t provide adequate identification at the polls or filled out information on their provisional ballot privacy sleeves incorrectly.

The point we are trying to make clear is that many ballots cast in Florida are rejected. And, as we show in the accompanying graphic (click here) depicting the August primary – which displays the proportion of rejected absentee ballots along the X axis and provisional ballots along the Y axis, with the size of the dots representing the sum of the absentee and provisional ballots cast in the election -- the likelihood of a ballot being rejected appears to depend on where it was cast, that is, in what county. All Florida voters should thus be asking, is there reason to be worried that the likelihood that my absentee or provisional ballot might be rejected depending on the county of my residence?

To get a better sense of the importance of this question, we looked at the patterns of rejected absentee and provisional ballots across Florida’s 67 counties in the recent Aug. 14 primary election. More than 786,000 voters cast absentee ballots and nearly 3,000 more were required to cast provisional ballots in this election, held only a few months ago.

Thousands of absentee and provisional ballots were rejected by county canvassing boards in the August primary. These rejection figures need to be considered in the context of a primary. That is, the primary was an election in which “super voters” — the state's most highly engaged voters – made up the vast majority of the voter pool.

What we found by analyzing voter history files maintained by the Florida Division of Elections is that the rejection rates of absentee and provisional ballots vary considerably across the state. As the graphic reveals, some counties reject a much higher proportion of absentee ballots and provisional ballots than others. Our analysis of official voter history files assumes that all absentee and provisional ballots cast were accepted unless there is unambiguous evidence in the history files that they were not. In addition, we also eliminated obvious inconsistencies in the state’s voter files in a way that we believe is appropriate.

With nearly 2 million absentee ballots already received by Supervisors of Elections Offices in advance of the upcoming 2012 general election, and countless more provisional ballots being cast during early voting (and on Election Day), there is a good possibility that we will see an even higher percentage of absentee and provisional ballots rejected by local canvassing boards than in the August primary and possibly even the 2008 general election.

Unfortunately, we won’t know definitively how many absentee and provisional ballots will be rejected until after voting has concluded and, presumably, a president named.

But the considerable variation across counties when it comes to rejecting absentee and provisional ballots is troubling. At this point we cannot say why there are considerable differences in Florida in the rejection rates of absentee and provisional ballots. But, we are suspicious that election administration across the state’s 67 counties is not entirely in keeping with a uniform application of the state’s electoral code.

In order to prevent another election fiasco, we think it is crucial that election administrators not only help voters become more educated about submitting valid absentee ballots, but also do what they can to avoid forcing voters to cast provisional ballot. It is also critical that supervisors of elections and county canvassing boards apply a uniform standard when making what are often judgment calls that decide whether a ballot counts or not.

Voting is a fundamental right in the United States. Casting absentee and provisional ballots may, unfortunately, be leading to the disenfranchisement of some voters, depending on the counties in which they reside.

Drs. Smith and Herron have co-authored articles in several outlets examining voting rights and election law in Florida.

Seth McKee
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

There is one thing we can be certain about as Election Day nears:

We have no idea who is going to win Florida.

Barack Obama appears to have the oft-repeated firewall of Ohio and if that holds, then he most likely wins a second term. Nonetheless, Florida may go to Mitt Romney regardless of whether Obama wins the presidency.

It is clear that the first debate increased Romney’s support in the Sunshine State. As is typical of our fluid and perhaps fickle state, good impressions mean a lot for an electorate that contains so many voters who aren’t deeply rooted in their communities.

Prior to the first debate, the vast majority of people paying attention to the Republican nomination contest were, not surprisingly, Republicans. So, even in early October, and despite running for president almost nonstop for the last six years (giving John McCain a tough fight in 2008), compared to Obama, Romney remained a relatively unfamiliar commodity. And thus, when Obama decided to take a nap during that first debate and it was Romney who appeared “fired up and ready to go,” he was rewarded with a nice ratings boost. But since “Superstorm Sandy,” it appears the race in Florida is once again too close to call.

At the end of the day, look out for three deciding factors that will be pivotal to the outcome in Florida: (1) turnout patterns among partisans (2) the preferences of independents and (3) the turnout rate among minority voters (African Americans and Hispanics). A notable turnout edge by one party can do much to decide the victor and likewise with respect to whether independents break decisively in favor of one candidate. Finally, a strong minority turnout can propel Obama to another Florida win.

Let’s be clear, Florida 2012 isn’t Florida 2008 or 2010, but if Florida 2012 is closer to 2008 then Obama wins and if it looks more like 2010 then Romney prevails. Florida 2012 will be somewhere between these two previous elections and thus mobilization is the holy electoral grail. Obama and Romney are doing all they can to get their people to the polls and from the vantage of a political scientist, I can only hope it is clear who wins.

No one wants a debacle reminiscent of Florida 2000. If the election is close enough for a recount, mayhem will rear its ugly head. But expect whoever is leading to eventually be declared the winner.

Elmore Bryant
Director, Area III, Florida State Conference, NAACP

Changes in Florida voting laws in my area cut early voting, and include only one Sunday of voting.  Sound the alarm.  Wake up; it’s time to fight.  I am well-trained by the N.A.A.C.P., but I speak for myself.  Same game, different times. 

In the 1960’s we saw all kinds of games designed to prevent people from voting:  the killing of Harry T. Moore and his wife, the shooting of Medgar Evers, the burning of towns and crosses in parts of the Panhandle. 

After leaving the state N.A.A.C.P. convention in Daytona Beach this year, we were fired up to teach our people about the ballot. 

We told them that the N.A.A.C.P.’s position is to vote “no” on all amendments and “yes” on all the judges.  We explained to the churches and clubs to sign their ballots and make sure they used the correct stamps.  We hosted “Souls to the Polls” the first Sunday of early voting – this killed all the confusion and fear; white and black people were marching together to vote.  We thought of the check given to Martin Luther King, Jr. marked “insufficient funds” as we marched Sunday.  I was on my way to cash my check – not just for me, but for those that died before me. 

One thing we could not change when we were young men was suppression of our right to vote.  We can change it now.

There was an effort to bring fear to our campaign when someone burned a large Obama sign in front of our headquarters.  It only made us work harder. 

We fear no one.


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