With the coronavirus pandemic raising concerns about how people can safely vote in 2020, Florida voters are breaking records for voting by mail.
The first big test is the Aug. 18 Democratic and Republican primaries and nonpartisan elections open to all voters. In South Florida, the number of people voting by mail two weeks before Election Day had already exceeded the number of mail ballots cast during all of mail voting in August 2016 and 2018.
The supervisors of elections who run voting in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties say voting by mail is safe, secure and reliable.
But there are some legal standards that could trip up first-time mail voters. And even for those who’ve used mail voting before, there are some changes since the 2018 midterm elections.
Most important: The deadline
Get your ballot back on time. Ballots must be back in the county elections headquarters by 7 p.m. on primary day. In Florida, postmarks don’t count.
For the Aug. 18 primary and nonpartisan elections, that means voters who are returning their ballots by mail should do so as fast as they can.
“Don’t delay. Don’t let it sit on the kitchen table. Get it back to us,” said Christina White, the Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections, said recently on Facebook Live.
Waiting until just a few days before the election raises the risk that the ballot will arrive late and the vote won’t get counted. That happens in every election.
Elections Supervisors Peter Antonacci in Broward and Wendy Sartory Link in Palm Beach County said they will have staff members at Postal Service sorting centers on Aug. 18, and again for the general election on Nov. 3, to pick up and return as many ballots as they possibly can.
In Broward especially, there’s an extra time factor. The county’s mail is shipped to Opa-Locka in Miami-Dade County for processing. So if someone puts a ballot in the mail a day or two or three before the election, it might not arrive on time.
When it’s too late to mail
There are other ways to return “mail” ballots.
Early voting sites accept mail ballots. There are 22 sites in Broward, 18 in Palm Beach County and 23 in Miami-Dade County. Hours are different in the three counties and vary depending on the day of the week. The last day is the Sunday before the election, which is Aug. 16 for the primary and nonpartisan elections.
People who drop off their mail ballots at early voting sites need to place them in the return envelope with a signature and date just as if they were placing it in the mail.
Voters, or someone they trust, can also return ballots to supervisor of elections offices — including on Election Day. But not all branch offices are open until 7 p.m. For example, Link said, Palm Beach County branch offices accept ballots until 5 p.m., when they’re brought to the county vote tabulation center.
Mail ballots cannot be returned at neighborhood polling places on Election Day.
Besides getting it back on time, voters need to make sure they sign the ballot envelope.
A missing signature means a ballot won’t be counted. A signature that doesn’t match what’s on file is flagged and won’t be counted.
A study of 2016 voting by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith found that the rate of rejection varies by county. Smith also found that younger voters and Black and Hispanic voters are more likely to have their signatures rejected. Other people have worried that their signatures changed over time, especially if it’s been many years since they registered to vote.
“Reforms that have either been required by the courts or brought on by the Legislature ... have cut down on the number of signature mismatches enormously,” Antonacci said. “It’s yesterday’s problem.”
In the March presidential primary, Link said, 0.2% of Palm Beach County ballots weren’t counted because of missing or mismatched signatures.
Use black ink. If a voter uses another color, the ballot has to go to the Elections Canvassing Board for review, said Steve Vancore, spokesman for Antonacci. On Aug. 11, canvassing board members were reviewing a ballot from a voter who used a purple marker that bled though the page.
Ways to verify
It’s possible to check the status of a mail ballot. Elections office staffers can answer by phone, but it’s fast and easy to check online through county elections office websites.
In Broward, click “check your voter status” on the elections office website. In Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, click “vote by mail” and then “track your vote by mail” ballot.
Time for a fix
There’s another reason to get your ballot back as early as possible, Antonacci and Link said. If someone makes a critical mistake — forgetting to sign the ballot or signing with a signature that doesn’t match what’s on file — election workers will try to get in touch with the voter by letter, phone, text and email.
(That’s why the ballot return envelopes ask for the optional phone and email contact information.)
Voters have until 5 p.m. on the Thursday after the election. which is Aug. 20 for the primaries and nonpartisan elections, to cure the problem.
People with mail ballots can vote in person
If a voter receives a mail ballot and wants to vote in person at an early voting site or a neighborhood polling place on primary day, that's allowed.
Early voting runs through Aug. 16 and neighborhood polling places are open on Aug. 18.
Can’t vote twice
Antonacci, Link and White said voters can’t game the system by voting by mail and then heading to an early voting site or neighborhood polling place on Election Day.
They said the voter rolls are constantly updated. Once a mail ballot is processed, a person won’t be able to cast a ballot in person. Or if someone’s voted at an early voting site or on Election Day, the system intercepts the mail ballot.
“We’re on a live system. The first ballot in will cancel any other ballot,” White said.
Getting a mail ballot
To avoid the chaos that surrounded the 2018 midterm election in Florida, state law was changed, and it’s too late to ask for a ballot to be mailed for the Aug. 18 election.
People who don’t want to vote early or in person on election day can pick up ballots at the Supervisor of Elections office.
Filling out the ballot correctly
Mark the ballot exactly the way the instructions specify and avoid making stray marks. Otherwise, it might not scan correctly and might not get counted the way you want.
In Palm Beach County, people who haven’t voted since 2018 will find a different ballot style. It’s now like other counties, and voters fill in an oval to cast a vote.
- If someone votes for more than one candidate in a race (unless it’s a contest in which people are supposed to pick more than one candidate) the vote won’t count. People are allowed to skip a race.
- Turn it over. For most voters, there are races on both sides of ballot pages.
- Keep them separate. If more than one mail ballot comes to a household, they should be kept separate, the League of Women Voters of Broward County warns. Unique bar codes are on each envelope and if two spouses sign each other’s envelopes that causes problems.
- Stuck envelope problem. Some Broward voters reported their ballots arrived with the return envelopes stuck shut because of humidity. They can be opened and taped shut to return. The most important thing is the signature.
- Missing secrecy sleeve. If someone forgets to put their ballot in the secrecy sleeve before sealing the ballot return envelope, it’s OK. The vote will still be counted, Antonacci and Link said.
President Donald Trump has sought to differentiate between mail voting and absentee voting.
There is no difference in Florida. In fact, state law no longer has any such thing as absentee voting.
Absentee voting used to require an excuse, such as being out of town on Election Day. It was greatly expanded and transformed into mail voting as part of the reforms following the George W. Bush-Al Gore presidential election in 2000.
Any registered Florida voter may now vote by mail — a system Trump used during the March presidential primary.
In the August voting, registered Democrats and Republicans will pick nominees to represent their parties in November elections for Congress, state Legislature and County Commission.
Florida is a closed primary state, which means only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in their respective primaries. Some primaries are tantamount to election because the November opposition stands little chance of winning.
There are also contests that are open to all voters, such as judge and school board. (A school board or judicial candidate who gets more than 50% of the vote in August wins. Otherwise, there’s a November runoff.)
Some primaries — such as the contest for circuit court clerk in Broward or supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County — are open to all voters because only Democrats are running. Because there’s no other candidate in November, the winner will get the four-year term in the job.
Broward: browardsoe.org or 954-357-7050.
Miami-Dade: miamidade.gov/elections or 305-499-8683
Palm Beach: pbcelections.org or 561-656-6200.