Casting, Rejecting and Curing Vote By Mail Ballots in Florida

An aligator chomping at a mail ballot that is dangling on a hook, mounted on a piece of graph paper with various data points

Amid a lethal pandemic, Floridians turned out in record numbers to vote by mail in the Nov. 3, 2020, general election. But beneath the surface of this groundswell in turnout lay troubling patterns about whose vote would count. For more than 47,000 Floridians — the majority of whom were people of color, younger voters and first-time voters — returning their mail-in or vote by mail (VBM) ballots led to a 48-hour countdown, which was completed only if they contacted their elections supervisor and fixed or “cured” issues with their ballots.   

A new report by All Voting is Local Florida and Daniel A. Smith, professor of political science at the University of Florida, notes troubling discrepancies behind which voters’ ballots were flagged to be rejected and which counties were most likely to have residents remedy issues in time for their votes to count. 

Across Florida’s 67 counties, voters of color, new voters and younger voters disproportionately had their ballots flagged to be rejected, necessitating the need to clear additional barriers for their ballots to count. In fact, Black voters, Hispanic voters and other voters of color in the 2020 general election were at least 60% more likely to have their mail-in ballots initially rejected compared to white voters.

What’s even more troubling than this discrepancy, is that where a ballot was cast could be an outsized factor in whether it was flagged and had a chance to be cured. Right now, instead of confronting these problems, the Florida legislature is trying to make vote by mail harder to use, which will just exacerbate these inequities.

In theory, the rate of initially rejected mail-in ballots across groups like young people, Black voters or newly registered voters should be fairly uniform no matter what county they were cast in if the law was applied fairly. Even if there are reasons that some groups could be more likely to have their ballots initially flagged, such as unfamiliarity with the vote by mail process, the ballots of these groups should have roughly the same rate of being rejected across the state. 

But that’s not what happened. Rather, certain counties routinely flagged the ballots of younger voters and Black and Hispanic voters at a rate that did not match those of other counties. For example, initial rejection rates for Black voters ranged from a high of 5.0% in Collier County, to a low of 0.2% in Broward County.

It’s extremely unlikely that the disparities in the mail-in ballot rejection rates are due to the failings of younger voters and voters of color to cast their mail-in ballots properly. Rather, election administrators are likely unevenly applying the laws around voting and harming certain voters.

As the report finds, “Voters casting mail ballots in some counties—regardless of their age, race/ethnicity, or date of registration—are likely not receiving equal treatment when having their VBM ballots evaluated.”

But there was good news. Florida voters were able to successfully use the state’s cure process — which affords them a maximum of 48 hours to remedy issues with their ballots — to make sure their votes counted. This process, according to the report, played a large part in reducing racial disparities. Black and Asian American/Pacific Islander voters were able to successfully cure their mail-in ballots at a higher rate than white voters in the 2020 election, mitigating some of the initial disparities resulting from the higher rejection rates of mail-in ballots cast by people of color. However, these disparities remain problematic and must be addressed by election officials. 

Bottom line: all voters should be able to cast a ballot that counts, regardless of their race, their age or where they live. 

Young voters in Charlotte, Dixie, Putnam and Seminole Counties shouldn’t be 10 times more likely to have their mail-in ballots initially rejected than the oldest voters.

Only 0.1% of Hispanic voters in Broward County had ballots flagged for additional cure requirements compared to 5.3% in Putnam County. Hispanic voters in Putnam County shouldn’t have to shoulder a heavier burden to vote. 

To truly fix these problems, the All Voting is Local report has strong recommendations to apply the law uniformly in every county in Florida. These fixes are more urgent than ever as Florida lawmakers insist on making it harder to vote by mail.

Florida officials and county supervisors of elections (SOEs) need to:

  • Process mail-in ballots immediately upon receipt and also be required to immediately contact voters by phone or email, rather than “as soon as practicable”; 
  • Offer greater simplicity with the instructions accompanying mail-in ballots and standard practices to allow voters to cure mail-in ballots flagged with a problem;
  • Be required to inform voters on their websites not only if a voter’s mail-in ballot has been received, but if it has been counted as valid;
  • Require the Florida Division of Elections to provide “best practices” guidelines, drawing on the policies and procedures of counties with the lowest rejection and highest cure rates of mail-in ballots; and
  • Change the law so that voters casting mail-in ballots may cure any deficiencies until 5 p.m. on the 10th day after the election, which will also allow military and overseas voters an opportunity to cure mail-in ballots flagged for rejection that arrive after Election Day.

As the report concludes, “[v]oters casting mail ballots in some counties—regardless of their age, race/ ethnicity, or date of registration—are likely not receiving equal treatment when having their VBM ballots evaluated by SOEs, or equal opportunities to cure their VBM ballots if they encounter problems upon receipt by local election officials, as similar voters in other counties.”

The good news is, these problems are fixable. By offering greater simplicity with the instructions accompanying mail-in ballots and parallel practices and training across Florida’s counties, Florida’s voters can have a fairer shot of having their votes count — no matter who they are or where they live.

Hannah Fried is All Voting is Local’s National Campaign Director and Alex Ault is All Voting is Local’s Policy Consultant. All Voting is Local is a campaign of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights fighting to remove needless and discriminatory barriers to the ballot in eight states: AZ, FL, GA, MI, NV, OH, PA and WI.