Planning To Vote By Mail? Make Sure To Check Your Ballot Status

Sep 20, 2018

Jacksonville resident Rodney Flippin said he’s been voting by mail, also called “absentee voting," for at least 20 years, but he doesn’t recall ever having to re-request his mail-in ballot.

That was until last month, when he said his primary ballot never showed up in his mailbox. So he got in touch with the Duval County Supervisor of Elections Office.

“I called and they said, ‘Yeah, you’ve been dropped off, and we can put you on the list again,'” Flippin said.

He said the same thing happened to a friend of his, which worries him.

“It’s one thing to change a policy, and that’s OK if that happens,” he said. “However, I think there should be some disclosure to the public that, 'Hey, you better call and make sure your name is on the list.'”

State law says voters can request mail-in ballots to keep coming through the end of the calendar year of the second general election cycle. In Florida, general elections happen during November of even-numbered years. That means if a voter requests a mail-in ballot this month, he or she would keep receiving them through the end of 2020.

Was there a change in Duval County?

Duval Elections Supervisor Mike Hogan said his office has always dropped people from the mail-in ballot list after two elections, and there’s been no change in policy.

“Folks have to re-up their request. It’s not there forever,” Hogan said.

Voters can contact the office to check their vote-by-mail status and request more mail-in ballots either:

Still, Flippin maintained he’s never had to re-up his request. And when WJCT News called the election supervisor’s office asking if there had been a policy change, the person answering the phone said dropping people off the list is a new practice.

“It used to be you could stay on forever,” the staffer told WJCT. Flippin said he had received the same response when he called about his missing ballot.

Hogan said that may have been from uninformed employees.

“We have a group of people that we hire for the call center for every election, and they stay in place for a couple weeks after the election, and that’s where all the calls are going,” Hogan said. “I’m going to make sure that they know that that’s not the accurate answer.”

But there used to be another option for requesting a mail-in ballot, so that could be why people forgot they did it.

Former Duval County Elections Supervisor Jerry Holland, who served from 2005 to 2015, said his team began the practice of attaching renewal requests to voter ID cards, which are sent out every two years.

“With the voter registration card there was a tear-off postcard that just said I want an absentee ballot,” Holland said. “It allowed you to renew it with that.”

Looking at the past two primary elections — 2016 and 2018 — about 20,000 fewer people were on the list to receive mail-in ballots in Duval County in 2018, while the number of total votes cast rose by more than 2,000. Still, the percentage of votes cast by mail in the two primaries rose from 25 percent to 28 percent at the same time, meaning those who did receive ballots were more likely to use them this year.

Currently, materials sent with voter cards encourage voters to update information like changing parties or updating a signature, but they do not specifically mention requesting mail-in ballots.

Hogan said he’s mailing a letter this month encouraging voters to check their mail-in ballot status and telling them how to re-request one if it’s expired.

Mail-in Rejection

But even when mail-in ballots do show up at home, they are 10 times more likely to not get counted than ballots cast at polling places in Florida. That’s despite a 2016 federal court ruling that ballots with mismatched signatures cannot simply be thrown out, meaning supervisors must attempt to contact voters to rectify mismatches.

A new University of Florida study commissioned by the ACLU showed the rate of vote-by-mail ballots rejected during the 2016 election,1.01 percent, remained basically unchanged since the 2012 election.

In Duval County the rejection rate was 1.35 percent in 2016, up from 0.56 percent in 2012. That’s as the number of people choosing to vote by mail decreased. In the 2012 presidential election, 82,913 residents voted by mail, compared to 76,053 in 2016.

Hogan said he doesn’t know why the rejection rate increased, but the process for examining ballots is honest and straightforward. He said two members of his canvassing board have to agree to reject it.

“We really don’t look at the rate,” he said. “We’re looking at signatures. Do they match? That’s the identification of the voter if they’re going to vote by mail. For instance, there’s no way for us to know the ballot we’re looking at whether that person is a Democrat, a Republican, a young person or if they’re black or Hispanic.”

Across Florida, mail-in ballot rejection rates are higher among black and Hispanic voters. In Duval, the rate is about 2 percent.

Author of the UF study, Political Science Professor Daniel Smith, said, “Clearly your likelihood of having a ballot rejected if you’re a person of color in Duval County is much higher if you vote by mail than if you vote early or on election day.”

  • Read the whole study here

Hogan said ballots are rejected for a host of reasons. Sometimes people accidentally send in sample ballots. Other times there’s no signature or a signature that doesn’t match the signature that someone submitted when registering with the elections office. That’s when a returned, signed affidavit is required to rectify the mismatch.

He said that’s why voters should make sure they update their signature on file if it’s changed over the years.

The ACLU is calling for more statewide uniformity in the procedures to process and validate mail-in ballots.

Key Info for By-Mail Voters

Those who want to vote by mail in November can check their expiration date and re-request a ballot if needed online, by calling (904) 630-1414, or by visiting the election supervisor’s office at 105 E. Monroe St. downtown.  

The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 31. The date is sooner, Sept. 22, for those overseas.

The last day for elections supervisors to mail vote-by-mail ballots is Friday, Nov. 2.

Photo used under Creative Commons.

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.