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Does a ballot count? These boards are already making critical calls in Florida

Jay Weaver
·9 min read

Holed up in a white rectangular room under the watchful eye of video monitors and lawyers for both political parties, the Miami-Dade County canvassing board is already scrutinizing — and sometimes rejecting — irregular mail-in ballots nearly two weeks before Election Day.

This month, the Miami-Dade election department has received more than 308,000 vote-by-mail ballots — including about 3,400 with potential voter errors, such as signatures on the ballot envelope that don’t match those on record. The flawed ballots, representing one percent of the county’s mail-in vote so far, are first reviewed by the election department’s staff to see if there is a fix, like contacting a voter to verify a signature.

A week into the process, the Miami-Dade canvassing board has rejected about 125 mail-in ballots. Ultimately, a stream of irregular ballots will wind up before the board, which will give a thumbs up or down on hundreds, probably thousands, of votes that could prove critical in what is expected to be a tight presidential race. .

“The department has no authority to reject a ballot, only the canvassing board,” Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White told the Miami Herald before a board meeting Wednesday. White sits on the board alongside two county judges, who will ultimately certify the vote count for every race after the Nov. 3 general election.

While their work is often done in obscurity, Florida’s 67 county canvassing boards — particularly Miami-Dade, as the state’s most populous area — inevitably attract media and public attention during high-stakes presidential election years.

Most notoriously, in Florida’s 2000 presidential vote recount, the U.S. Supreme Court shut down the three South Florida canvassing boards as they examined hanging chads on punch-card ballots to discern voter intent, a tedious ordeal that riveted the world. That historic intervention allowed George W. Bush to win the White House by a 537-vote margin against Al Gore in Florida.

Though not yet in the spotlight, Miami-Dade’s board on Wednesday methodically examined 247 mail-in ballots with mostly mismatched voter signatures — rejecting 31. The board also reviewed another 328 ballots, mostly with markings for more than one candidate in a single race, allowing all of them to be counted.

Lawyers for the two presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, as well as the Republican and Democratic parties, raised occasional objections along partisan lines during the board’s public meeting at the election department in Doral.

‘Bubble in the circle’

“The only thing I’m interested in is the bubble in the circle [on the ballot],” canvassing board chairwoman Victoria Ferrer, a county judge, told the lawyers at one point. “I’m not looking at whether the party is Democrat or Republican.”

In Florida, canvassing boards have three members — the local supervisor of elections, a county judge and a county commissioner — but substitutes are allowed. In Miami-Dade, the three members are White, the supervisor; Ferrer, the chair; and a third rotating county judge. (No county commissioner is sitting on the board for the general election because two of its members, Daniella Levine Cava and Esteban Bovo, are in a runoff for mayor.)

Earlier this month, the Miami-Dade board checked on the accuracy of ballot tabulation machines. Last week, the board began focusing on the record-setting waves of mail-in ballots along with early voting that started on Monday — mainly to stay ahead of the processing of hundreds of thousands of ballots before the Election Day poll results pour in on Nov. 3.

Voters must properly sign their name in the red box printed on the ballot envelope before mailing it to the supervisor of elections office or dropping it off. The Miami-Dade County Elections Department mailed more than 530,000 ballots on Oct. 1 to voters who requested them for the Nov. 3, 2020, general election.
Voters must properly sign their name in the red box printed on the ballot envelope before mailing it to the supervisor of elections office or dropping it off. The Miami-Dade County Elections Department mailed more than 530,000 ballots on Oct. 1 to voters who requested them for the Nov. 3, 2020, general election.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Floridians are voting by mail, generating heightened challenges for election departments and canvassing boards. Depending on whether the presidential race between Trump and Biden is close, vote-rich South Florida may have to endure bitterly contested recounts, as it did in the 2000 and 2018 general elections.

Whatever the outcome this time, canvassing boards will be wielding tremendous power every step of the way.

“They are the final arbiter on whether or not a vote is counted,” said Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman Steve Simeonidis, a lawyer who attended the canvassing board meeting Wednesday. “They are like a judge and jury.”

White, who took over the helm of the Miami-Dade elections office in 2015, said that under Florida law her staff is responsible for reviewing voters’ mail-in ballots to ensure they are properly signed in a red box on an envelope and that their signatures match those on record.

As of Wednesday, 308,587 vote-by-mail ballots were returned to the election department, but 3,403 of those were deemed “preliminary rejections” because of voter errors — either a mismatched signature, no signature on the ballot envelope or some other mistake.

Despite that initial ruling, White said Florida’s election system allows for these ballots to be corrected or “cured” in elections parlance. Certain staff employees, who are trained by a forensic signature expert, review the ballots once and then a second time, if necessary.

If any of those ballots are accepted, they are scanned into the tabulation machines so they can be counted at the end of Election Day. (The tabulation office is separated by a row of windows from the canvassing board’s meeting room at the election department.)

If any ballots are not accepted, then the supervisor’s office reaches out to the voters in question to fill out a signature affidavit in a timely way. So far, the office says it is verifying 713 affidavits returned by voters, while another 2,566 irregular mail-in ballots are still under review. Voters can also track their mail-in ballots on the elections department’s website and, if there is a problem, request the affidavit, too.

Majority vote

Ultimately, if there is still doubt about the validity of a mail-in ballot, it is up to the county’s three-member canvassing board to decide whether to accept or reject it. A simple majority prevails.

“We want to give the voter the most amount of time to respond to the problem,” White said in an interview. “If the voter ‘cures’ [corrects] the signature mismatch, then the ballot never goes to the canvassing board. But if there is still some question about the signature, the canvassing board decides whether to accept it.”

Perhaps the biggest failure of mail-in voters is to send their ballots in too late. They must arrive at the election department by 7 p.m. on Election Day. If they don’t, the ballots are summarily rejected and not counted — with the exception of absentee votes from U.S. military and other Americans overseas.

Overall, White said she is confident that many of the mail-in ballots rejected during the initial stages of this election will be corrected. In the Aug. 18 primary, for instance, the Miami-Dade election department received roughly 266,000 mail-in ballots but only 274 were rejected, mainly because voters’ signatures didn’t match those on record.

“That’s extremely low,” she said.

White said her bigger concern is unsigned ballot envelopes. Of the 266,000 mail-in ballots returned in the August primary, 3,238 were rejected because voters failed to write their signature on the envelope.

Each mail-in envelope has a bar code with the voter’s name, address and other information, which enables the election department to track down the voter to correct the omission. But sometimes that effort is unsuccessful, leading to ballot rejections.

Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Republican Party in Miami-Dade, said the county’s election department has adapted to the growing popularity of mail-in voting and influx of ballots, processing them daily to avoid a bottleneck so they can be tabulated smoothly at the end of Election Day.

“Miami-Dade goes out of its way to make sure your ballot is counted,” said Diaz, a lawyer. “There is always the possibility of something happening when your ballot leaves the mailbox, but you can always deliver it to an early voting site or the elections supervisor’s office.”

Ben Kuehne, a prominent Miami-Dade attorney who is among thousands of lawyers representing the Biden or Trump campaigns as poll watchers, said even if there are “massive challenges” of vote-by-mail ballots, the canvassing board serves as a solid backstop.

The protection is always there for the canvassing board to make good-faith determinations,” Kuehne said.

Of course, the same voting issues confronting Miami-Dade are playing out in Broward, which has been experiencing a dramatic surge in mail-in ballots. So far, the Broward election department has received 273,417 vote-by-mail ballots, including 331 with potential voter errors — a tiny fraction of the total. They’re mostly missing voter signatures on the ballot envelope, an election department spokesman said. Others have mismatched signatures or someone’s signature other than the voter.

So far, the Broward canvassing board has approved 19 of the irregular mail-in ballots, while the balance are still under review, said spokesman Steve Vancore.

Vancore said there are staff “cure” teams that review improperly signed ballots and contact voters to ensure they have an opportunity to correct them. Ballot envelopes without signatures present a greater challenge, though the elections office attempts to track down voters, he said.

Vancore pointed out that as long as mail-in ballots are returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day, any fixes can be made until 5 p.m. Thursday — two days later. If there is still a question about a ballot’s validity, the canvassing board has the final say, he said.

In Broward, the canvassing board consists of Supervisor Peter Antonacci, who was appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott after he suspended former supervisor Brenda Snipes following the county’s flawed 2018 election count, and County Judge Ken Gottlieb and County Commissioner Michael Udine.

Florida’s 67 election departments have until 12 noon on Nov. 7 to submit an unofficial vote total to the Department of State. The official tally under state law is due at 12 noon on Nov. 15. Both counts must be approved by local canvassing boards.