Report: Collier elections officials rejected blacks' absentee ballots at higher rate

Corey Perrine/Staff 
  
 A worker sets up a voting booth Friday, Oct. 26, at the Collier County Public Library headquarters branch. More than 40 booths were setup.

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Corey Perrine/Staff A worker sets up a voting booth Friday, Oct. 26, at the Collier County Public Library headquarters branch. More than 40 booths were setup.

Dan Smith, University of Florida

Dan Smith, University of Florida

— A report released Thursday found that absentee ballots cast by black voters in Collier County were more likely to be rejected by the county's canvassing board than those cast by white voters.

But while Collier elections officials said the data is accurate, they also said it paints an inaccurate and unsavory picture of the county's election system.

"You have no idea who these people are, what party they belong to or what they voted for," said Doug Rankin, the county's Republican state committeeman and a canvassing board observer. "We don't have any discrimination."

Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, said during a news conference Thursday with the League of Women Voters of Florida that research found Collier County rejected 6 percent of absentee ballots cast by black voters, compared to 1.3 percent of absentee ballots cast by white voters.

That would mean 35 of the 581 absentee ballots cast by black voters were rejected, compared to 616 of the 45,682 absentee ballots cast by white voters.

Smith said the county's rejection rate was well above the statewide average and that it's especially concerning because Collier County is covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires that covered counties get federal pre-approval, or preclearance, for election law changes.

By comparison, Hillsborough County, also covered by the federal Voting Rights Act, had about 1.2 percent of absentee ballots cast by black voters rejected and 0.8 percent of absentee ballots cast by white voters rejected, Smith said.

"I think the results from Collier County should raise the eyebrows of the Justice Department," Smith said in an interview with the Daily News following the news conference. "It seems African-Americans casting ballots had a disproportional likelihood (of being rejected)."

Tim Durham, Collier County's deputy supervisor of elections, said county elections officials aren't intentionally rejecting the ballots of minority voters.

"That is the most outrageous statement," Durham said. "We want every voter to have a good voting experience. We want every voter who is wishing to vote to vote. We want every ballot that can be counted to be counted."

Collier County elections records show 746 of the 49,389 absentee ballots returned were rejected, with 295 of those rejected because they came in after the 7 p.m. Election Day deadline.

The remaining ballots were rejected because the signature was different from the one the elections staff had on file or there was no signature on the envelope.

Collier County election records show officials rejected 261 ballots because the signature didn't match and 159 ballots because the envelopes weren't signed.

Durham said "if there is at least a benefit of the doubt" that a signature is a voter's, the canvassing board counts it.

Chuck Mohlke

Photo by Gary Coronado .GC

Chuck Mohlke

Canvassing board members have no knowledge of the voter's race, ethnicity or political affiliation and are told to make the decision based solely on the facts in front of them.

"I know on our end of things that everything is done on the utmost neutrality and fairness," Durham said.

Rankin and Chuck Mohlke, a prominent Collier County Democrat and canvassing board observer, couldn't agree more.

"All they're looking at is an unopened ballot," Mohlke said. "There is no information made available about who it is."

Mohlke said minority voters tend to shy away from voting absentee, and instead have traditionally voted in person either early or on Election Day.

Smith said the state's decision to cut early voting days in half — from 14 to eight in 2012 — meant more people voted absentee to avoid long lines. That move, he said in the report, disproportionately affected black and Hispanic voters.

But it wasn't all bad news for Southwest Florida election officials. Smith said state data showed 17 percent of black voters in Lee County cast absentee ballots in 2012 and none of those ballots were rejected. About 36 percent of white voters cast absentee ballots and 0.02 percent of those were rejected.

Sharon Harrington

Provided

Sharon Harrington

Sharon Harrington, Lee County's supervisor of elections, said Thursday she didn't have a breakdown of the rejection rate for minorities casting absentee ballots in Lee. Of the 90,996 absentee ballots returned to her office, Harrington said, 958 were rejected by the canvassing board.

"Again, of the 958, I don't have the demographics of these rejections," she said in an email to the Daily News. "It is not something the canvassing board looks at when making a determination to reject or accept a ballot."

Harrington also said since that demographic information is not required, "many, many voters do not complete that part when submitting their application" to register to vote and the breakdown of figures aren't necessarily a "true or factual representation of actual voters."

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