In Miami-Dade, Black voters twice as likely as white voters to have ballots rejected

Aaron Leibowitz
·5 min read
Judge Betsy Benson, canvassing board chair, left, and Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye, canvassing board member, examine a damaged ballot as the election recount continues in Broward County on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.
Judge Betsy Benson, canvassing board chair, left, and Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye, canvassing board member, examine a damaged ballot as the election recount continues in Broward County on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

The rates at which mail-in ballots cast by Black, Hispanic or young voters in Florida are being flagged for possible rejection in the Nov. 3 election are substantially higher than among voters overall, according to data analyzed and provided to the Miami Herald by Dan Smith, a political science professor and elections expert at the University of Florida.

South Florida counties mirror those trends: As of Thursday in Miami-Dade County, 0.48% of white voters, 0.86% of Hispanic voters and 1.2% of Black voters have had their mail ballots flagged by elections offices for missing or mismatched signatures and other problems.

In Palm Beach County, as in Miami-Dade, Black voters have so far been more than twice as likely as white voters to face rejection: 0.15% of white voters, 0.27% of Hispanic voters and 0.39% of Black voters have had their ballots flagged by elections offices.

Smith told the Herald the disparities by race and age are similar to what he has found in past elections. Voters who aren’t familiar with the vote-by-mail process are far more likely to forget to sign their ballots or commit another error that causes their vote not to count.

“What we’re seeing in South Florida is what we’ve seen across the state in previous elections going back to 2016,” Smith said. “That is, younger voters and Black and Hispanic voters having higher rates of ballots that are being flagged by elections offices for not having a signature or some other issue with their return envelope.”

Statewide, the disparity was even more stark as of Oct. 15, according to Smith: 0.37% of white voters, 0.97% of Black voters and 1.01% of Hispanic voters had been marked for possible rejection. In other words, Hispanic voters in Florida have been 2.7 times more likely than white voters to have their ballots flagged.

Younger voters have also been more susceptible to problems. Take Palm Beach County, where 0.5% of voters age 18 to 29 have had their ballots flagged, as opposed to just 0.14% of voters over 65.

Lack of experience may be the issue in that case. In the March presidential primary, new mail voters in Florida were nearly three times as likely as experienced mail voters to have their ballots rejected.

The disparities seem to favor Republicans so far. About 15,000 of the 3.2 million mail ballots processed in Florida, or 0.47%, have been flagged, and Democrats — who are leaning on mail voting like never before due to the COVID-19 pandemic — have been 0.07% more likely than Republicans in Florida to see issues raised with their ballots.

That difference favoring Republicans is 0.16% in Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest county and a region that could be key to President Donald Trump’s chances of reelection.

Smith obtains the voting data from political sources because it is not now publicly available.

In Broward County, the racial disparities, though still apparent, are less pronounced. The county has flagged ballots for 0.14% of Black voters, 0.13% of Hispanic voters and 0.11% of white voters, according to Smith’s analysis.

(Voters are coded in state data as either Hispanic, Black or white, among other categories, but are never coded as both Hispanic and another racial category.)

Miami-Dade has flagged about 0.85% of all ballots as problematic — well above the state average and the rate in Broward — 0.12% — but a drop from the county’s 1.9% rejection rate in the August primary, which was among the highest in the state.

With record numbers of Floridians voting by mail, the question of whose ballots get rejected could be critical in determining winners and losers in a state where races are decided by razor-thin margins.

“The question is, will these voters who have already cast their ballot be contacted to be able to cure their ballot before the deadline?” Smith said.

South Florida election officials say they’re making every effort to reach voters about ballot issues. Voters have until Thursday, Nov. 5 — two days after the election — to fix or “cure” an error if their ballot is rejected and send the correction to their elections office to have their vote count.

“As soon as the ballot is noticed as having problems, our cure teams immediately attempt to reach the voter via postcard, email and phone,” said Broward elections spokesman Steve Vancore.

In Miami-Dade, 3,188 mail ballots had been received as of Friday with missing or mismatched signatures, according to deputy elections supervisor Suzy Trutie. Of those, she said, 1,297 have already been cured.

If there is still doubt about the validity of a mail-in ballot after an attempt to cure it, it’s up to the county’s three-member canvassing board to decide whether to accept or reject it.

A 2018 study of Florida’s past two presidential elections found that, overall, mail ballots were 10 times more likely to be rejected than votes cast at early voting sites or on Election Day.

In this election, nearly 3.4 million Floridians, including 1.6 million Democrats and over a million Republicans, have already voted by mail, state data shows. That’s more mail ballots than were cast in the entire 2016 general election, when Florida had 2.7 million mail ballots.

Progressive groups in Florida have been working to contact voters themselves to encourage them to fix any ballot issues before the deadline, with a particular focus on reaching non-white voters. Phillip Jerez, the campaign manager for the Coalition for Black and Brown Ballot Access, said the coalition of nonprofits is spending money on advertising and outreach in 23 Florida counties, including Miami-Dade, to inform voters on how and where to vote and to help them fix problems if their ballot is rejected.

“We are doing the ballot curing work, reaching out to voters directly,” said Jerez. “Even if supervisors reach out to them, they might not know what next step to take, the deadline, or how to properly fill out their ballot. We’re trying to do whatever we can on that effort to reach folks where they sleep.”

Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.