On Time, Too Late? Absentee Ballots in Palm Beach County

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[Image courtesy of studydoctor]

As more and more voters across the country turn to absentee or vote by mail ballots, I wonder how many times the following scenario, reported in the Palm Beach Post, will be repeated:

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, an hour before the polls closed, two supporters of Riviera Beach mayoral candidate Bishop Thomas Masters delivered 300 absentee ballots to the Supervisor of Elections Office.

The ballots, collected from city residents, gave Masters enough of a lead to avoid a runoff but they also raised the ire of Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, who presides over the time-consuming process of manually opening each envelope, comparing the signature on the absentee ballot to the voter’s registration and then tallying the vote.

Most absentee ballots arrive by mail or are delivered to the supervisor’s office at least a day before the 7 p.m. deadline on election night — when the polls close. That gives Bucher and her staff time to tally the absentee ballots before machines begin counting ballots cast that day at the polls.

But when absentee ballots come in at virtually the last minute, as they did Tuesday, ballot counting stalls and it takes longer to get results in all races.

“Your ballots are holding up the whole process,” Bucher huffed to Masters as she reviewed his absentee ballots Tuesday night. During last year’s presidential election, Masters showed up just minutes before 7 p.m. with hundreds of ballots.

It’s an interesting conflict: one one hand, election officials feel pressure from candidates and the media to have timely results, but on the other hand voters are entitled to return their ballots as late as applicable law allows. In places like California, where voters can drop vote by mail ballots at any polling place in their jurisdiction, the choice has been to sacrifice quick counts – a choice that more communities may need to make, especially if the Postal Service goes through with its announced cuts in service.

It’s already become a topic of legislative discussion in Florida:

Lawmakers are considering several bills to address problems detailed by supervisors after voters waited as long as eight hours to cast ballots …

However, none of the bills considers changing the absentee ballot deadline.

“There has been some discussion to shut that off on Monday or (earlier) Tuesday,” Bucher said. “I don’t know what they’re going to to.”

Until the law changes, however, election officials should probably expect last-minute ballots and plan accordingly:

Masters said he doesn’t want to inconvenience the supervisor but “at the same time, we don’t want to lose the election.” He believed turning in the absentee ballots at 6 p.m. would give the supervisor’s staff enough time to process them. For the next election, he hopes to turn in his absentee ballots by 5 p.m.

“Let me just say this: We get requests to pick up ballots until the last minute,” Masters said. “We know the law says we have until 7 p.m. that day. If you’re open, you’re open.”

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