Ben Wilcox

Ben Wilcox

TALLAHASSEE — Florida is where elections are close and “post-election meltdowns are the rule, rather than the exception,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida.

He announced the release of a report Wednesday on the state’s elections by Integrity Florida, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog,” according to its website.

Florida is also the state of “hanging chad” fame from the 2000 election, he said, and where the supervisors of elections in two counties were removed by the governor following the 2016 and 2018 elections.

But the Legislature passed a bill in 2019 to address some of the issues with the 2018 election, and another one this year that will go into effect in 2021 to fix even more, he said.

And there were no problems with the March presidential preference vote, he said.

The part of House Bill 7066 written to restore voting rights to felons is still working its way through the court system but other parts of the bill have gone into effect, Wilcox said.

They allowed the supervisors of elections to send out vote-by-mail ballots earlier this year; to set up drop boxes to collect them; to include a space for the voter’s email address on the envelope so he or she can be informed when the ballot has been received; and to count the ballots earlier.

“Those changes represent best practices,” he said.

They may represent the future as well, he said, as more states will be implementing or expanding voting by mail this year due to COVID-19 pandemic. A successful first experience could leave people more open to it.

Five states — Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Hawaii and Colorado — already conduct all elections by mail, he said. Another 29, including Florida since 2002, allow residents to vote by mail for any reason.

He said studies show there are few problems with and little evidence of fraud in voting by mail, and that it doesn’t help a party.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized voting by mail — making an exception this week for Florida — alleging major problems in those areas.

“Virtually every credible source we found refutes President Trump,” Wilcox said.

Trump has also tried to distinguish absentee voting, which he says is good, from voting by mail, but they’re the same thing, Wilcox said. Such comments could undermine public confidence in the system and influence voting, he said.

“When it comes to the integrity of an election, perception is everything,” he said. “It’s critical that voters have confidence that the election results are accurate and that all legitimate votes were counted.”

Voting by mail is popular, he said, and there’s evidence that it may increase voter turnout, especially among first-time voters and groups less likely to vote, including minorities and the disabled.

On the negative side, he said those groups are also more likely to have ballots rejected, often over an issue with signature comparison.

The report offers several policy options for state officials to consider:

• Consider moving to universal voting by mail, with an option of limited in-person voting. If it goes this route, the state should prepay the postage for returning ballots in increase turnout.

• A biannual voter education program, regardless of whether universal vote by mail is implemented.

• Giving counties a vote-by-mail option for local elections if it’s not adopted statewide.

• Giving supervisors of elections more flexibility over early voting and polling place locations.

Integrity Florida’s report, “Voting by Mail: A Safe Option for Florida Voters — The Implications in a Battleground State,” is available at IntegrityFlorida.org.

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