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A change to Florida's ballot signature review creates headaches for local officials

In this 2020 photo, an election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections in Doral, Fla.
Lynne Sladky
In this 2020 photo, an election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections in Doral, Fla.

Updated August 23, 2022 at 11:06 AM ET

A change to Florida's election laws has created a new headache for some local election officials.

A little-known provision in Senate Bill 90, a sweeping voting measure passed by Florida Republicans last year, increased how much input the public can have when it comes to approving signatures on mail ballots.

This change comes at a time when local election officials across the country are still dealing with the fallout of misinformation following the 2020 election.

Wendy Sartory Link has been the supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County for about three years. She says the job has been fulfilling and more involved than she ever expected. But Link says she's also been surprised by how often she's heard from people who believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

"We get a lot of demands — including, ironically, today — that they want there to be a recount, or actually they want a new election for 2020 because they believe — and these are their words — that the election was stolen," Link said a few weeks ago.

This is a statewide issue, says Mark Earley, who heads elections in Tallahassee's Leon County and is president of the state association of supervisors of elections. He says small groups of people have been coordinating and requesting public records, meetings with officials and "demanding opportunities to challenge ballots" as well as voters.

"And that is getting incorporated into some statutes that we are now having to apply," Earley said, referring in part to the new signature review in SB 90.

Most mail ballot signatures clearly match what local officials have on file. But when signatures aren't deemed to be a close-enough match, election staff try to get in touch with the voter to cure their ballot. And if that doesn't happen, Earley says, those signatures go before a canvassing board.

"These are just the signatures that are debatable, from our perspective, as to whether they are valid or not," he said.

And historically, this is the point at which the public has been able to weigh in on whether a signature should be approved.

Leslie Scott Jean-Bart, an attorney in Jacksonville, has for years been watching over canvassing boards with her legal partner in Duval County.

"We will object if they discard a ballot that we think matches," she told NPR. "And that just gives us a record. And we will write down the number for what that was and we will write down the reason for the objection."

Very rarely does this affect what signatures get approved by the board. But records are useful, Jean-Bart says, when elections are really close.

Under the new rules, though, Earley says supervisors of elections need to give the public the ability to weigh in earlier — basically at the beginning of the signature inspection process.

"Now the requirement is for reasonable access to potentially look at a vast number of signatures that our staff has found absolutely no trouble with," he said, "and for outsiders to be able to lodge objections to even these really good quality signatures."

UnderSection 101.572 in SB 90, candidates and political parties can appoint anyone they want to inspect voter signatures. There's no training requirement and it's up to supervisors of elections in each of Florida's 67 counties to set parameters on how that's going to work.

And that takes time and money. Link says a local group in Palm Beach County told her they were sending more than a hundred people to inspect ballot signatures this month. So, she bought a big tent and equipment.

"We ramped up to accommodate that," she said. "And now as it turns out we've had many fewer than that." As of last week, only eight people signed up to look at signatures in Palm Beach County, Link's office says.

Earley says in the time this provision has been in effect, he's heard about other issues, too. For example, he's heard of people coming in and demanding broader access than what their county official offers, as well as issuing challenges to signatures that are clearly a match to what's on file.

He says this is all part of a larger issue with growing distrust in elections.

"I absolutely believe this intent is being driven by the misperception out there that you can't trust anything anymore, even your eyes," he said. "That gets to be extremely disruptive for our ability to get our jobs done."

Earley views Florida's primaries — which conclude Tuesday — as a trial run for this new process. He says he's worried the general election in November could be a bigger test.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.