County election supervisors in Florida are urging the state to throw out new vote-by-mail restrictions that are set to be rolled out next year, saying the measures could present serious logistical and security issues.
In a report sent to the Florida Department of State earlier this month, a working group of local elections officials warned that the new identification requirements — which will require voters to provide a driver's license number or partial Social Security number on their ballots — will create significant election reporting delays and a slew of costs for local election offices, and could disenfranchise large numbers of voters.
"Unanimously, Florida Supervisors of Elections view this legislative proposal as unnecessary and lacking adequate feasibility for implementation," they wrote in their report.
Florida's new vote-by-mail measures are part of sweeping legislation signed into law last year by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Provisions in the law, known as Senate Bill 524, are similar to vote-by-mail ID rules that went into effect in Texas last year.
Watching what happened in Texas
Local election officials in Texas say those new ID requirements tripped up thousands of voters. Early on in the state's March primary, some counties were reporting preliminary rejection rates as high as 38%. After thousands of ballots were fixed, or cured, about 12% of mail ballots statewide were ultimately rejected — which one voting rights advocates said was "catastrophic for democracy" in the state. Rejection rates dropped further during the general election, to 2.7%, which state officials say was the result of education campaigns and ballot redesigns in some cases.
Mark Earley — the Leon County supervisor of elections and current president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association — told NPR that local officials watched Texas closely last year and are concerned about rolling out similar requirements in a state where significantly more people vote by mail.
Texas' vote-by-mail program is largely limited to seniors and people who are out of town, disabled or in jail. In Florida, though, all eligible voters are allowed to vote by mail. On average, about a third of all ballots cast in Florida's elections are mail ballots, which Earley says raises the stakes of any big changes to the state's ballot-by-mail program.
Officials worry voters could be disenfranchised if they provide ID numbers that are not in their voter file or if they do not write their ID information legibly, according to the report sent to state election officials.
They wrote that most voters register while getting a driver's license, which means that their license is the number officials are most likely to have in their voter record.
"Contrastingly, most voters provide the last four digits of their social security number when asked to verify their identities using [personally identifiable information]," the report notes. "As such, a disparity exists between what information is in the voter file and what information voters provide to be verified. Supervisors do not have tools to reconcile these differences."
Earley said lawmakers also didn't include anything in the law that specifically addresses how election officials would allow voters to cure their ballot if there is missing or incorrect ID information. He said since about a third of voters typically vote by mail, that "could be a very significant proportion of the ballots" in the state.
Under Florida law, officials have only two days after Election Day to finish counting mail ballots, which Earley said could "potentially disenfranchise voters" in upcoming elections.
"It's going to be very difficult to get all those vote by mail ballots counted," he said.
Push for new mail ballot ID rules
Requiring identification numbers on mail ballots has been among model legislation pushed by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in recent years.
Zack Smith, a Heritage legal fellow, said these provisions make voting by absentee ballot "as safe and secure" as possible.
"It is inherently less secure than voting in person," he said. "Voting with absentee ballots [isn't] taking place in a precinct on Election Day with election officials there to monitor it."
But election officials in Florida, including Earley, say their top issue at the moment is costs and risk associated with these new rules.
"Supervisors of elections are very concerned about every aspect of this: the timeliness, the cost and the ability to just get our vote by mail tabulated in time," Earley said. "Our chief recommendation is that this gets canceled. It needs to be rethought."
Brian Corley, the Republican elections supervisor in Pasco County and chair of the working group, said that among the top concerns is protecting personal information. He said in order to prevent identity theft, election officials will have to create new materials to obscure ID information when ballots are sent back to a county.
"There is a cost involved with that," Corley said.
Earley said there are really only two options for shielding that ID information — either having a second envelope to put the completed mail ballot in, or creating a ballot with a larger flap that covers the identification field. Either option would require investments in new equipment, which Earley estimates could cost local election offices upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Heritage's Smith said regardless of how much money these changes end up costing, election security is a worthy investment for states.
"Placing paramount priority on safe and secure elections is something that, yes, we think a state should prioritize," he said.
Increased labor costs and slower results
New materials will also add additional steps for election workers once ballots are returned, which Corley said will further drive up labor costs for local officials. He said it will take a lot of time and more people to prepare those mail ballots for verification.
Corley said these steps could upend Florida's recent history of having timely election results.
"We have been blessed in that our laws and rules allow us to start canvassing earlier," he said. "So, if we have to go through a lot of these extra logistical hurdles, that is obviously going to cause a delay in our results and that will not be a good thing."
Democratic state Rep. Dotie Joseph said issues with Florida's Republican-backed law amount to either "very bad oversight, which is the equivalent of elections malpractice" or policy that is intended to make it harder for some to vote.
"A lot of times some legislators look at what they want to do but they don't think through the implementation process," she said.
Democratic state Sen. Tracie Davis of Jacksonville, who spent 13 years working in the Duval County supervisor of elections office, said the vote-by-mail ID provisions in SB 524 — which notably created an election crimes unit — didn't get enough attention.
"This piece of it didn't get the attention it needed to get for the supervisors to kind of yell, 'This is just not something we need to be doing,' " she said.
An added concern is that lawmakers also recently created new rules requiring election officials to give the public more access to the voter signature verification process.
Earley said the ID information will likely have to be located at the back of the mail ballot alongside the voter's signature. He said that will likely complicate the public access provisions that are also now required by law.
"We will have to come up with some way to allow the signatures to be viewed but not allow the ID numbers to be viewed," he said.
The Department of State is expected, by law, to issue a report on the new mail voting provisions by Feb. 1. A spokesperson for the agency declined to comment on the working group report ahead of the agency's own report on the matter.
The sponsor of SB 524, Republican state Sen. Travis Hutson, also declined to comment.
Early said he and other election supervisors are hoping lawmakers entirely scrap these new vote-by-mail requirements during this year's legislative session. If not, he says he hopes they at least postpone implementation until after the 2024 presidential election.
"Florida is always a focus — and really a worldwide focus — when it comes to presidential elections in the United States," he said. "And given who may be on the ballot that scrutiny is going to be there in a much bigger way."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.