After receiving complaints from Florida voters living abroad, Salon reported Thursday that the state's duplicate absentee ballot mailings unnecessarily confused overseas voters.
In interviews Friday, Florida elections officials sought to clarify the procedure, which they described as standard.
Florida law requires that absentee voters be mailed an advance absentee ballot at least 45 days before the general election. Because Florida holds primary and runoff elections through October, it's not always possible for counties to print and mail complete ballots that far in advance. Therefore, absentee voters are sent an advance ballot that will provide them with a chance to vote in the election in the event the complete ballot does not arrive on time. The law also states that the ballots should be different colors and clearly marked -- with the first noting that it is an "advance absentee ballot."
The state also requires that specific instructions be sent out explaining that if the absentee voter receives the complete second ballot, then only that ballot will be counted. The law also include mechanisms that prevent votes from being double counted. But at least one official also conceded that the mailings are sufficiently confusing that the system should be reformed.
"The advance is a confusing ballot," says Pam Iorio, elections supervisor for Hillsborough County. Whereas most states hold their primary elections in June, Florida holds elections in September, October and November. "The only way we can get rid of it is to get rid of the second primary. It's a very antiquated part of Florida law. I doubt there are any other states that have this problem."
Indeed, some did find the process confusing. After learning about the incredible scrutiny of the Florida election, several absentee voters contacted Salon to report how the ballots had confused them.
Elaine Gatley, a civil service executive secretary stationed at RAF Mildenhal in southeastern England, told Salon that "people thought there was something wrong with the original ballot," and that that was why they were sent a second one. Gatley said she wasn't able to distinguish between the ballots, and claims that she did not receive any explanatory materials.
"It would be easy to confuse them if you were doing them at the same time, which I was," says Kristin Huckshorn, a 43-year-old Palm Beach County voter living in Tokyo.
But Florida election officials sought to allay those fears Friday. "It's not possible for two votes to be counted because every absentee ballot is checked in," says Hillsborough County official Iorio. Each of the two ballots should be a different color, in accordance with Florida law, and "It's computerized so we know when we receive a second ballot that you've already sent one in," Iorio says. "It's really a pretty organized system."
Not so, says Gatley. "The absentee ballots we received were all white with black print, no special markings, and no special instructions or different colors," Gatley confirmed in an email Saturday.
At least four voters from Pinellas and Duval counties supplied scanned copies of their absentee voter ballots to Salon Friday, which were clearly marked and accompanied by instructions explaining that both should be sent in and that only one would be counted.
The state takes precautions to eliminate some confusion. Florida law requires that the advance ballot be clearly marked "advance." The law also states that instructions must be included and that they state that only one of the ballots will be counted for each election. Envelopes must be color-coded, so the officials know when it comes in that it's an advance ballot.
Meanwhile, Huckshorn says that of the two ballots she received, one was orange and one was white, but "you had to read them carefully to understand that one included more races than the other. The punch cards were identical, as were the return envelopes." She also says she called her parents in Florida to figure out what to do, and decided to send in only the second ballot because she was afraid she would be voting twice if she sent both.
In some counties -- Hillsborough and Santa Rosa, for example -- they're computer-coded as a means to safeguard the tally, but "each county is different," says Susan MacManus, chair of the Florida Elections Commission . "Some of Florida's counties, for example, still use paper ballots and others are very high-tech. Each county also has a different vote-counting system," she says.