TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - If Florida faces another uncomfortably close presidential election on Nov. 3, rejected vote-by-mail ballots could spell trouble.
The unprecedented spike in demand for mail-in ballots spawned by the coronavirus has led to a subsequent surge in the number of ballots that are poised to be rejected - either because they arrive past the election night deadline or are invalidated because they have a problem with the signature.
This election cycle, Florida's election supervisors have mailed a record 5.6 million ballots to voters as of Thursday and have had 2 million of them returned and processed. In 2016, there were 2.7 million mail ballots cast.
Of the ballots returned so far, 11,637 - or .56% - were flagged as invalid because they either were missing the required signature or had some other voter-caused error, like a mismatched signature, according to University of Florida election expert Dan Smith.
"This is only the tip of the iceberg," said Smith, who has been studying Florida's vote-by-mail system for the last eight years. "Thousands more mail ballots will arrive in the coming days, cast by eligible voters."
In a normal election year, these ballots rarely take center stage but, in 2020, if the presidential election stays as close as the polls indicate and there is a recount, uncounted ballots may play a significant role, and potentially draw a legal challenge.
"I could certainly see the mismatched signature as the hanging chad of 2020," Smith said.
He is referring to the infamous 2000 election, when the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore hinged on a massive recount of punch card ballots. Ballots with incompletely punched holes and dangling particles of paper known as "hanging chads" were not counted and weeks of lawsuits followed.
In 2020, the number of invalid ballots flagged for rejection already exceeds the number of votes that decided the 2018 U.S. Senate race, when Republican Gov. Rick Scott defeated Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson by fewer than 10,000.
Voters have until Thursday, Nov. 5 - two days after the election - to fix or "cure" an error if their ballot is rejected and send the correction to their elections office to have their vote count. But Smith sees it as a pandemic-era test for the resiliency of our election systems.