By: Sayo Aweomoni
With the prevalence of COVID–19, it is no doubt that the 2020 presidential election will look very different from any other election America has ever had. As more citizens become concerned for their health and safety, states are set to experience an unprecedented number of voters casting mail in ballots during the upcoming presidential election, but as more people vote by mail, there is a risk of having a large number of ballots go uncounted. These concerns are exacerbated in swing states like Florida, where there is a long history of high rejection rates for mail in ballots.
According to election law experts, people voting for the first time by mail are more likely to make mistakes that could lead to their votes being rejected. As the amount of people choosing to vote by mail increases this year, two provisions in particular – the 7 p.m. election night deadline and a signature-match requirement – could lead to disenfranchisements of thousands of Floridians, more specifically black and Hispanic citizens, if the state refuses to make efforts to accommodate for the current health crisis. During the primaries alone, an estimated 18,000 mail in ballots were rejected in Florida for missing the deadlines or for errors including a mismatch with the signature on file. Despite the pandemic, which left many people scared to go out to public gatherings, polling places without poll workers and several other difficulties, the state still refused to relax these requirements. In a battleground state like Florida, where outcomes could be determined by only a few votes, consequences like this could make a huge difference in determining who emerges as the victor. In the primaries, experts also found that minority voters were more likely to vote by mail for the first time this year and they were twice as likely to have their votes rejected in comparison to white voters. The same outcome is also expected for the general election.
In an effort to ensure that the pandemic does not disenfranchise minority citizens, civil rights organizations in Florida filed a suit against Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee, demanding accommodations to the state’s election procedure in response to the pandemic. Some of the proposed remedies in the updated complaint include extending the deadline to return a vote-by-mail ballot, expanding the use of drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots, extending the time period to cure issues with vote-by-mail ballots, and expanding the days, hours, and locations for early voting in each county. The settlement reached in that case will ultimately “increase access to voter registration, require the state to inform citizens of their options in casting a vote-by-mail ballot, encourage Supervisors of Elections (SOEs) to use funding options to provide prepaid postage for mail-in ballots, and require the Secretary of State to develop and execute a public relations campaign to inform voters of their options in casting a ballot, especially among communities of color, college-aged voters and seniors.”
Although some progress was made with this settlement, Florida still has a long way to go in protecting the votes of thousands of Floridians for this upcoming general election. A further suggestion to protect this franchise for Floridian voters is to expand the window of receipt for mail in ballots by enacting a grace period to receive and count mail in votes, as this would go a long way in protecting tens of thousands of votes.
To reduce the number of mail-in ballots that could potentially be rejected, everyone has to play their part. Although some Florida voters may be lax about their responsibility to sign their ballots and mail in out in time, the government is ultimately responsible for protecting the integrity of the election, and they possess the power to make accommodations and create reasonable flexibility to promote a free and fair election.