Florida Invalidates More Absentee Ballots From Black, Young Voters

Office of Gov. Rick Scott
Just before the November 2016 election, a federal judge forced the Florida Division of Elections to allow rejected absentee-ballot voters to correct mistakes on their mailed-in forms. Yet somehow even more ballots ended up being rejected in that election than in 2012 — and younger voters and voters of color, who overwhelmingly lean to the left, had their ballots invalidated at a far higher rate.

That's the conclusion of a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which says the results suggest a troubling trend of the state tossing out ballots from young and minority residents for reasons the group can't explain. 

"All voters — regardless of race and ethnicity or age — face considerable hurdles when casting a mail ballot," the report reads. "But in Florida, younger voters, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, are disproportionately more likely not to have their VBM ballot counted as valid."

During the 2016 election, voters aged 18 to 21 were eight times likelier to have their mail-in ballots rejected by local election boards compared to voters aged 65 or older. Even though voters under 30 made up less than 10 percent of all absentee voters, those in that age bracket made up 30 percent of all rejected ballots. The ACLU noted that ballot rejections were particularly acute in counties with large college populations.

When broken down by race, the disparity between valid votes from white voters and voters of color somehow worsened between 2012 and 2016:
When assessing the relative rejection rates of VBM ballots, although the nearly 245,000 Black voters comprised only 8.9 percent of all voters casting a VBM ballot in the 2016 general election, they accounted for 16.9 percent of all voters who had their VBM ballot rejected. Nearly one-in-four rejected VBM ballots in 2016 were cast by Hispanics, although they accounted for only 13.9 percent of all VBM ballots cast that election. Ten percent of the nearly 28,000 rejected VBM ballots in 2016 were cast by members of other racial or ethnic groups, although they accounted for only 5.5 percent of all VBM ballots cast. White voters cast nearly 72 percent of all VBM ballots in 2016, but they accounted for less than half of all rejected VBM ballots in 2016. 
It's important to note that the ACLU's report does not suggest any sort of organized scheme to suppress left-leaning votes. (Though the report doesn't rule out that possibility either.) Instead, the report, compiled by University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith, presents a dataset that should trouble anyone concerned with voting rights access across the state. Simply put, if you're younger or a voter of color, it's more likely that the state will reject your absentee ballot for submitting "mismatched signatures" or other similar violations.

Smith says a whole host of factors could be influencing the disparity. Most notable, each of Florida's 67 counties collects vote-by-mail ballots slightly differently, and Smith chides Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner for not standardizing that process. Smith also worries that some counties seem to be significantly worse at communicating with their voters (especially voters of color) than elections departments in other municipalities. Pinellas County, for example, is seen as the "gold standard" for elections departments statewide and rejects the fewest number of ballots.

But the datasets are jarring. In both the 2012 and 2016 elections, roughly 1 percent of absentee votes were marked as invalid. In 2012, more than 24,000 mail-in ballots were rejected. In 2016, more than 27,700 ballots were invalidated even though there were new mechanisms in place to solve problems with ballots submitted with mismatched signatures by 5 p.m. before Election Day. Smith notes the discrepancy seems bizarre.

The gulf in how many ballots were trashed is huge between some county election boards. Of the 67 Florida counties, four didn't reject any mail-in ballots. On the other end of the spectrum, six counties rejected more than 2 percent of the ballots received by mail.

Compared to 2012, 50 of the 67 counties improved their ballot-rejection rates. But rejection rates worsened in 14 of the remaining 17 counties — including Miami-Dade, which reported the third-highest rejection rate in the state in 2016. Miami-Dade also reported the third-highest number of rejected black voter ballots and the seventh-highest percentage of rejected Hispanic voter ballots.

Miami-Dade also posted the second-worst rate of rejected ballots from young people. That's particularly interesting now because Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is locked in a fight after activist groups, including the ACLU, demanded he open more early-voting centers on college campuses. The data also comes after Gov. Rick Scott has been repeatedly accused of various voter-suppression schemes during his tenure as governor, and just before Florida voters are set to decide on a ballot measure that could finally end the state's racist law banning felons from voting. That 19th-century law was explicitly designed to prevent blacks from going to the polls.

Young voters and voters of color were also likelier to have had their ballots invalidated in both the 2012 and 2016 elections and were less likely to have been properly contacted in 2016 to fix balloting issues. The ACLU notes that some counties, including Pinellas, didn't seem to have issues contacting people to fix their ballots, while others struggled.

"To be sure, responsibility for the variation of invalid VBM ballots in Florida rests with individual voters who have the responsibility to follow instructions and have an up-to-date signature on file," the report reads. "But the responsibility to protect the right to vote also rests with election officials who process and validate VBM ballots.
For Florida to have free and fair elections, all eligible voters must have equal opportunity to vote, including those casting (and curing) VBM ballots."