Two weeks after the Florida primaries, the Miami-Dade elections office is now at the center of a voter suppression claim bolstered by a lawsuit filed by the NAACP against the U.S. Postal Service.
On Aug. 26, voters and candidates united at the Miami-Dade Elections Department at 2700 NW 87th Avenue to contest how “8,000 ballots were received by the elections department but not counted,” according to a news release by the South Florida National Action Network.
The group comprised representatives from organizations like the South Florida Action Network, NAACP and PULSE, as well as candidates who were defeated in the Aug. 18 elections by margins of 2% or less.
Jessica Laguerre Hylton was one such candidate. She ran for Florida House District 117 and lost to Kevin Chambliss by 221 votes.
“I am a first-time candidate, I raised less than $10,000 and I had 70 days to campaign,” said Laguerre Hylton, who is a certified legal researcher trained in arbitration and alternative dispute resolution. “The reason all of this surfaced is because there was a misprint on a few of my constituents’ ballots before the election, so my husband and I went down to the elections office to inquire.”
It was while investigating ballot discrepancies that Laguerre Hylton said she discovered that a number of vote-by-mail ballots were rejected or uncounted due to late arrival or signature mismatching.
According to Florida statute as it relates to vote-by-mail ballots, a voter must ensure that their ballot is signed and matches a signature in the Florida state system, and that it is in possession of the supervisor of elections office no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day.
Miami-Dade Deputy Supervisor of Elections Suzy Trutie confirmed that for reasons such as a missing signature, no signature match, wrong ballot style or deceased voter, a total of 3,743 vote-by-mail ballots were rejected in the last election. Additionally, her office received a total of 4,167 vote-by-mail ballots after Election Day, which was too late to count.
This meant that a total of 7,910 votes could have changed the results of several races.
“There are close to two dozen races that have been affected by these ballots,” said Laguerre Hylton. “This is not a partisan issue, most of the races that were affected were Republican races, it’s not an issue of my race or their race, but every single vote should count.”
Races like that of the Republican Representative Congress District 23, where Carla Spalding defeated Michael Kroske by 635 votes; that of Republican State Representative District 105, where Bibiana Potestad lost to David Borrero by 389 votes; and one of the most heated races – Republican State Representative District 120, including both Monroe and Miami-Dade ballots – serve as fuel for voter and candidate outcry over voter suppression.
Rhonda Rebman Lopez reportedly lost her bid for the Republican Representative District 20 seat to James Mooney by 148 votes.
“Every vote should count. COVID has hurt our community so badly ... we cannot let COVID hurt our election,” Rebman Lopez told attendees at the Aug. 26 press conference at the Miami-Dade elections office. “Forty-eight hours is not enough time to cure ballots for those voting by mail.”
Many have called Rebman Lopez a sore loser, said Hylton.
Rebman Lopez refused to take the results lying down because, according to the Miami-Dade elections office, she had 41.57% of the votes in her favor and Mooney only carried 18.10% of Miami-Dade voters.
“I met with a lady who was 92 years old. I took her affidavit to her home. When she went to sign it, her hand was shaking. They couldn’t count her vote at first but after I hand-delivered her affidavit, they counted it,” said Rebman Lopez. “Every vote should count in America.”
Olanike Adebayo, who lost the Circuit Judge 11th Judicial Circuit Group 55 seat by 1.9%, said the same thing happened to her mother-in-law.
“We went to Souls to the Polls at Miami-Dade College,” said Adebayo. “My mother-in-law said a prayer before she signed her name. She is older and her hands shake. When I took both our ballots to the drop box, they asked for my ID and I signed off that I was dropping off both mine and hers.”
In the end, Adebayo’s ballot was counted, her husband’s was counted, but her mother-in-law’s was not.
Juan-Carlos Planas, a Miami-Dade elections lawyer and former state representative, said it is a common occurrence – older citizens have difficulty signing their names.
“There are a lot of older people whose signatures have changed over the years,” he said. “But those people who are older generally answer the phones when the elections office contacts them to verify.”
It is protocol for the elections office to contact a vote-by-mail voter by phone or text to tell them of a signature error with their ballot.
Then, they must fill out an affidavit and attach a copy of their identification, which can be delivered, emailed or mailed – if time permits – to the elections office no later than 5 p.m. on the second day after the election, or the ballot will not count.
“We are the most populous county in the state of Florida so we are going to have more problems than the other counties,” said Planas. “The one positive thing about this lawsuit is that people will realize that the post office will not be reliable, they’ll say ‘the Trump administration is messing with the post office ... let me go drop off.’ That would be positive.”
The NAACP filed the lawsuit against the postal service and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Aug. 20 after DeJoy authorized changes in the postal service that contributed to widespread delays across the country.
Multiple Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have called for the resignation or removal of DeJoy, a major donor to President Donald Trump.
South Miami-Dade NAACP President Dwight Bullard said the suit cited the dismantling of sorting machines and the removal of mailboxes across the country as a form of voter suppression.
“My frustration is we’re spending time to try to get people to participate in the franchise, we’re on the phone, we’re getting them out as a nongovernmental organization,” said Bullard. “But the people who are responsible are not being as diligent as we are. It should never be the role of government to dissuade someone from their voter participation.”
Still, Trutie said that if voters are concerned about the postal service not delivering their ballot on time, they can always turn it in to the office directly or the 33 early voting sites where they will have drop boxes ready for the November general election.
But both Bullard and Laguerre Hylton disagree with drop-off as an equitable alternative.
“If you look at those who benefit from mail-in voting, they don’t have the option to just get up and jump in the car to drop off their ballot like you and I, which is why they chose this option,” said Laguerre Hylton.
Laguerre Hylton claims that the group which rallied together in Miami-Dade is not demanding a recount of these primaries as much as they are requesting an executive order from Tallahassee be issued to temporarily suspend the 7 p.m. Election Day cut-off for all vote-by-mail ballots in order to prevent a repeat offense in November.
She expected that Florida would pattern the executive order signed into law by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Aug. 20, which requires his “county boards of elections to take concrete steps to properly inform voters, inform state of election staffing needs, use uniform stationary for absentee ballots and ensure absentee ballots can be used in village elections.”
However, there is nothing in Cuomo’s executive order that requests an extension of time to count mail-in ballots. In fact, he states that he expects staff to “count votes faster,” that “all objections be made by the county board in real time” and that they “reconcile affidavit and absentee ballots by 48 hours after elections.”
While there may not be precedent for an extension on the receipt of vote-by-mail ballots, Joe Scott, Broward County’s newest supervisor of elections, believes “there is a real need to extend the deadline.”
“I’d love to see if there could be an adjustment to the state law. It can be difficult in the urban counties to round up all those ballots. We should extend it by a couple of days so those ballots can still count,” he said, claiming he plans to contact legislators to ensure this accommodation can be made during a pandemic.
Scott, who will not be installed in his new role until January 2021, said that he hopes in November there would be more of an effort to get all the votes in, even though he will have no say in these efforts.
“I hope to overhaul the system, improve communication using technology, robocalls and a better app to make it so Broward voters trust the system,” he said. “I would even have a more coordinated effort to organize direct pickups of ballots from the processing center in Opa-locka.”
Trutie says the Miami-Dade elections office has a similar procedure in place as they receive deliveries and coordinate pickups from the post office on a daily basis, year-round, and that on Election Day – for county-wide elections – the delivery/pickup is three times a day.
“In addition to the delivery/pickup of vote-by-mail ballots, we continually receive voter registration applications and other documents through the mail since the elections department conducts more than 20 elections a year,” she wrote in an email to The Miami Times.
Scott himself was caught in a very tight election against Chad Klitzman. After a machine recount he triumphed by 607 votes out of a total of 207,595; a difference of 0.3%, according to the Broward County website.
“There are people out there who would oppose and push back on a plan to fix things. But that is voter suppression,” said Scott.
For now, Adebayo has the following advice for every Florida voter – sign your ballot, make sure your signature matches the one on your driver’s license, take a picture of the tracking number on the back of your ballot and track your ballot.