More than 7,700 mail-in ballots in South Florida counties weren’t accepted because they arrived after the state’s deadline to be counted, according to election officials.
The growing popularity of voting by mail and Florida’s heated recounts have put the process under scrutiny. In a federal lawsuit, Democratic groups argued unsuccessfully that the state’s deadline is disenfranchising voters.
Mail-in ballots must be received by election officials by 7 p.m. on Election Day to be counted. Overseas ballots — from military members or civilians working abroad — are counted if they are received up to 10 days after the election.
Pete Antonacci, who was recently installed as Broward County’s elections head, said he wants to step up voter education efforts to avoid a similar issue in the 2020 presidential election.
“We have to scream it on our webpage,” he said. “If I can put a red flashing light on these envelopes I’ll do it. If you wait until the last minute, you may run the risk of non-tabulation.”
Voting rights advocates say slow delivery by the U.S. Postal Service is contributing to the problem. In Miami-Dade County, 266 ballots were in the Opa-locka postal facility on Election Day but weren’t received until four days after the election, according to elections officials.
Election officials say they make repeated visits to post offices to pick up mail-in ballots that arrive just before the deadline.
“Our recommendation always is to request a ballot with time for you to receive it, vote it and have plenty of time to have it returned by mail,” said Susan Bucher, supervisor of elections for Palm Beach County.
Debra Fetterly, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service, said in a prepared statement that a review did not find any issues at postal facilities that resulted in ballots being lost or significant delays.
“We have thoroughly reviewed our process for this election season and have concluded that there have not been any significant bottlenecks, delays or delivery problems related to election mail, including ballots,” she said.
Late-arriving mail-in ballots probably would not have changed the outcome of the state’s razor-thin races for U.S. Senate and governor. Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis beat his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum by about 32,400 votes. Outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott edged Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by about 10,000 votes.
The race was for Agriculture Commissioner was closer. Democrat Nikki Fried won by about 6,700 votes.
A federal lawsuit filed by VoteVets Action Fund along with two Democratic organizations sought to have ballots counted that were postmarked before Election Day and received within 10 days of the election. A federal judge ruled the state’s deadline was reasonable.
A state tally filed in federal court showed that 65 of 67 counties reported 6,670 ballots were postmarked before Election Day but were not received by the deadline.
That number under-reports the number of late-arriving ballots. Two large counties — Polk and Palm Beach — did not report.
Broward County reported it didn’t receive any ballots after the deadline that were postmarked before Election Day. But that’s because Broward County prepays postage, and the ballots do not receive a postmark. The office received 3,389 ballots after the deadline, but it can’t determine when those ballots were mailed, according to election officials.
Miami-Dade County received 3,424 mail-in ballots after the deadline, including 344 postmarked before Election Day and another 662 with no postmark.
Palm Beach County received 958 ballots after the deadline, and election officials are trying to determine how many of those were postmarked before Election Day. Bucher said state law does not require election officials to document postmark dates, but workers are reviewing the ballots.
Some states give voters more time to submit mail-in ballots, according to a summary compiled by the nonprofit group vote.org. In California, mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within three days of the election are still counted. In New York, ballots must be postmarked one day before Election Day and can be received up to seven days after Election Day
Antonacci said it’s up to policymakers to decide whether the deadline should be extended, but he thinks extending the deadline too much could cause problems by delaying election returns and undermining the public’s trust.
“You can’t keep that window open forever,” he said. “At some point, the window has to shut.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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