To keep or toss a ballot? Florida is already deciding

Nearly half a million mail ballots had been sent to Miami-Dade County election officials by Monday morning, and at 10 a.m. the county’s canvassing board met to discuss issues with 154 of them.

Every vote is critical in Miami-Dade. To win the state, and possibly the election, Joe Biden needs to run up the score in the Democratic stronghold. President Trump has been making gains in the county, however, particularly among Hispanic voters. He held a rally late Sunday in Miami; President Obama did the same Monday for Biden, his former vice president.

The canvassing board, led by county elections supervisor Christina White and two county judges, makes the final decision on ballots that are preliminarily rejected or flagged for problems. Also present were about a dozen observers, including reporters and — reflecting the stakes — lawyers representing the Trump and Biden campaigns and the Republican National Committee. They declined to talk to the press.

In a state with just over 14 million registered voters, more than 1 million county residents had voted as of Monday morning, either by mail or during the in-person early-voting period that ended Sunday. Democrats had cast nearly 100,000 more votes than Republicans, reflecting a higher rate of mail voting.

Board members spent part of the meeting examining — sometimes with a magnifying glass — the mistakes or stray marks on ballots that had made it impossible for machine scanners to determine the voter’s intent. On some ballots, people “over-voted” by filling in the circles next to the names of two candidates running for the same office. On others, voters put an “X” or a check mark where they should have filled in a circle.

While the scene recalled those amid Florida’s famous recount after the 2000 election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, this meeting went smoothly.

Occasionally lawyers from the two presidential campaigns objected. Despite the high stakes, each side let a few errors go unchallenged when the voter’s intent was clear. For instance, no one objected to a ballot on which the voter filled in the bubble next to Trump’s name and penciled him in as a write-in candidate, or to a ballot on which Biden was selected, and the name of California Sen. Kamala Harris, his running mate, was added in the write-in space.

Juan-Carlos Planas, an election lawyer and former Republican member of the state legislature, was there representing his pro-Biden committee, Republicans and Independents for a Fair Election. Planas said that in 2016, he wrote in the name of Florida’s former Republican governor, Jeb Bush, rather than vote for Hillary Clinton. He now says that was a mistake.

“The last four years have been worse, exponentially worse, than I ever thought they could have been,” he said. “In part because I regret not voting for Hillary, I made myself a promise that I would do everything possible … to help defeat Donald Trump.”

His group has fielded poll-watchers and plans to intervene in any litigation, he said. Planas said he found no fault with the canvassing board’s meeting.

Despite an increase in mail ballots this year amid the pandemic, very few have had potentially disqualifying issues, said White, the elections supervisor. The most common problem, present in about 2,300 ballots, was a missing signature on the return envelope, she said. Voters are notified and have until Thursday at 5 p.m. to sign an affidavit and fix their ballots.

“Millions of people have been voting by mail in Florida — it’s something that has been offered for many years,” White said. “Our voters here are more used to it than maybe some of the other jurisdictions.”

Because Florida election officials by law were able to start tabulating ballots weeks before election day, White’s office will go into Tuesday having counted all of the mail ballots received through Monday, she said. Ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on election day to be considered on time.

“We’re ready,” she said. “The big question is, how many do we get tomorrow?”