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Palm Coast Friday, Jun. 12, 2020 3 weeks ago

How we send, receive and protect mail-in ballots in the Flagler Elections Office

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Kaiti Lenhart: 'I stand by the mail ballot process in Florida.'
by: Guest Writer

by: Kaiti Lenhart

Flagler Elections Supervisor

Many voters in Flagler County are considering voting by mail this year and have questions. Others are questioning the integrity of the mail ballot voting process. This is an explanation of how we vote by mail here in Flagler County to answer some questions we have been receiving from voters over the past few weeks.

I stand by the mail ballot process in Florida. I vote by mail, and it’s also the method of voting that much of my family prefers. Most of my staff and election workers vote by mail. During this global pandemic, when the public is asked to avoid crowds and limit social interactions, voting by mail allows many at-risk citizens to participate in democracy, without compromising their health. 

Unfortunately, voters are faced with negative information and myths regarding to the mail ballot process in Florida. Election after election, even after thousands of Flagler County voters successfully cast their ballots by mail, we are defending the security of mail ballot voting again this year. Many voters in our county prefer to vote by mail for the convenience of voting from home, due to work, travel, transportation or health reasons. We mail ballots all over the world to overseas citizens and our military service members who are serving overseas. Florida has been a no-excuse absentee (also known as Vote-By-Mail) state for almost 20 years.

We do not conduct all mail ballot elections in Florida and that's not going to happen in 2020 or anytime in the foreseeable future. There will be in-person voting options, as always, for voters who choose to vote early or on Election Day. We don't know how long this pandemic will last, and we are planning to do our best to keep our election poll workers and our voters safe. Our workers will have face shields, masks and gloves. Voters will be asked to practice social distancing while voting. As in March, during the Presidential Preference Primary election, surfaces and equipment will be cleaned with disinfecting wipes throughout the day.

 

Are mail ballots counted?

During this global pandemic, when the public is asked to avoid crowds and limit social interactions, voting by mail allows many at-risk citizens to participate in democracy, without compromising their health. 

Yes! One of the biggest myths is that Vote by Mail ballots are not counted unless a race is close. All mail ballots are verified and counted in every election. In fact, they are among the first results you see on Election Night. During the General Election in 2018, we had a record number of mail ballots returned: 14,649 mail ballots which was 27.5% of the total turnout during that election.

Our most recent election was held on March 17, 2020. During this Presidential Preference Primary Election, there were 9,537 mail ballots cast, which was 43.3% of the total turnout for that election.

Mail ballots are opened during a public meeting of the Canvassing Board, where teams are used to separate envelopes and their contents to ensure a voter’s secrecy. Ballots are tabulated (counted) during the same meeting, and all three members of the Canvassing Board (County Judge, County Commissioner and Supervisor of Elections) verify the totals. We meet to open and count mail ballots several times during an election cycle.

 

Can anyone vote by mail?

Yes, any registered voter in Flagler County can request a mail ballot. According to federal law, ballots for overseas citizens and our military service members are mailed 45 days prior to an election. All other ballots are mailed up to 40 days prior to an election.

 

When are the vote-by-mail ballots due?

Voted ballots can be returned any time prior to Election Day at 7 p.m. A postmark does not extend this deadline.

 

How do you verify a voter's identity when they vote by mail?

In order to vote by mail, a citizen must be registered to vote and provide ID at the time of registering. If no ID is provided, the voter must return a copy of their ID along with their balloting materials and complete an affidavit.

In order for a mail ballot to be counted, the signature on the returned voter’s certificate must match the signature on file. Each one of the thousands of mail ballot envelope signatures are reviewed by trained Elections Office staff, a process which takes many hours. In the most recent Presidential Preference Primary election, we reviewed over 9,500 signatures. If there is a difference, the ballot is escalated for review by two other staff members. A voter whose ballot signature is missing or does not match is contacted by mail, phone and/or email immediately and instructed to complete an affidavit. They must provide photo ID to “cure” the signature difference. If the ballot return envelope is not signed, the ballot cannot be counted unless the same affidavit and ID are provided.

 

How do you ensure a voter’s ballot is kept secret?

During the public meeting of the Canvassing Board, teams of two people open and separate the ballot from the returned envelopes. The number of teams is typically determined by the number of ballots being opened and the number of election poll workers available.

Ballots are opened by precinct, and each team counts one precinct at a time. The first team member removes the contents of the envelope and passes the ballot and secrecy sleeve to their team member who is seated across the table. This process is important because the name of the voter who was mailed a ballot is printed on the return ballot envelope while the contents of the ballot envelope (the ballot itself and the secrecy sleeve) do not have any identifying information. The second team member does not see any of the ballot envelopes.

The second team member removes the ballot from the secrecy sleeve, unfolds it and places it face down. This process continues until all the envelopes in that precinct have been opened. Each team member counts and they reconcile the empty envelopes with the number of ballots.

The teams do not know how many ballots are in each precinct. When finished, they announce their total, and it is compared to the number received by the office by the Canvassing Board members. The numbers must match, or the ballots and envelopes are counted again.

We often receive thousands of mail ballots during a busy election cycle, and this process can take several hours.

After a precinct total is verified by the Canvassing Board, the ballots are moved to tabulation and counted. The tabulation team is composed of trained Elections Office staff who again verify the totals by precinct. At the end of the meeting, the grand total is verified by the Canvassing Board.

 

Can I return my mail ballot in person?

Many voters prefer to drop off their voted mail ballot in person. Secure ballot drop boxes are available at all early voting sites during voting hours. Ballots placed in our drop boxes are returned to the office by Elections Office staff at the end of every early voting day. This means the Elections Office will receive your voted ballot the same day you drop it off at an early voting site.

We also have a secure ballot drop box at the entrance of the Elections Office in Bunnell, which is under video surveillance and available 24 hours, seven days a week. During an election cycle, ballots returned in our office drop box are collected several times a day by Elections Office staff.

You may also visit the Elections Office in person during office hours to return your ballot to our front counter. Please remember that your voted mail ballot must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted. A postmark does not extend this deadline. We recommend you mail your ballot at least a week prior to the election, to ensure delivery to the Elections Office. If you are in the county and still have your voted mail ballot on Election Day, it's best to deliver it directly to the Elections Office no later than 7 p.m.

 

How do you keep mail ballots secure?

When a mail ballot is received, it is date stamped and checked in by precinct. Once the voter’s identity is confirmed, the ballot envelopes are counted and sorted by precinct. Mail ballots are received daily, and those returned each day are added to the cumulative total. We balance these ballots received daily, and the totals are reconciled before staff leaves for the day.

Ballots are stored in our fireproof vault, which is under video surveillance and our security procedures require two-person control to enter. The ballots are stored there until they are opened and counted during a public meeting of the Canvassing Board.

 

How do I find out if my ballot has been received and counted?

We provide an online ballot tracking service for all voters who prefer to vote by mail. To use this service, simply visit www.FlaglerElections.com/vbm and enter your information. You can see the date your ballot was mailed and whether or not it has been received and counted. We work closely with the USPS and have intelligent mail tracking information for every ballot which leaves our office.

 

Does 'ballot harvesting' happen in Florida?

Ballot harvesting is the collection and return of absentee or mail-in ballots by any third-party, including volunteers or paid workers. States have different laws and court rulings in various states have sometimes allowed harvesting and sometimes forbidden it. Ballot harvesting is illegal in Florida.

Section 104.0616, Florida Statutes makes it a criminal offense for a person to provide or offer to provide, or to accept, a pecuniary or other benefit "in exchange for" distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting, delivering, or otherwise physically possessing more than two vote-by-mail ballots per election (other than his or her own or that of his or her immediate family).

A designee may pick up a blank vote-by-mail ballot for another voter. An example of this would be a voter who planned on voting on Election Day but is unexpectedly in the hospital. A family member can pick up their ballot, with certain restrictions. The designee is limited to picking up the following blank ballots (besides his or her own ballot):

  • Ballots for two other voters (that do not fall in the categories below).
  • One ballot for any member of his or her immediate family: spouse, parent, child, grandparent or sibling or spouse’s parent, grandparent or sibling.
  • A designee can pick up a ballot for another voter only within the 9-day period before Election Day and on Election Day. The designee must have a written, signed authorization from the voter in order to pick up their ballot and present photo ID.

I’d be happy to explain the process in more detail to anyone who has questions. Call the Elections Office at 386-313-4170, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or send an email to [email protected]

Your vote counts!

Kaiti Lenhart is the Flagler County supervisor of elections.

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