Edward Palkovic, 76, who lives just south of Orlando, has diligently voted by mail as a registered Republican in 16 municipal, state and federal elections in Florida over the past decade. But 10 times, his votes didn’t count.
Florida rejected Palkovic’s mailed ballots more often since 2006 than any other voter, according to the latest available statewide figures from the Division of Elections. Two others have had mailed ballots rejected nine times each over the years, and four have had votes rejected eight times.
Palkovic, who lives in St. Cloud in central Florida, said he didn’t know his votes never counted. He spent the past 10 years believing he was participating in democracy. A reporter broke the news to him.
“It doesn’t make me feel very good,” Palkovic said. He seemed overwhelmed.
In battleground Florida, where political campaigns are won or lost by the narrowest of margins – and where the presidency may depend on the outcome of voting here – the numbers of rejected mail ballots may be enough to swing the election either way. Already more than 15,000 mail ballots in Florida have been declared ineligible ahead of Tuesday’s election. Political fortunes have been decided in Florida by less.
The problem is disturbing especially to Democrats, since they represent nearly half the 4.2 million people in Florida who voted by mail so far. About 21% of the 4.2 million were not affiliated with any party. Republicans in the state have been turning out in far greater numbers than Democrats for early, in-person voting.
President Donald Trump, who has said without evidence that mail ballots can be manipulated, voted by mail in Florida’s primary in August but voted early in person for himself last week in Palm Beach County.
For Palkovic, Osceola County’s Democratic supervisor of elections confirmed his ballots were rejected 10 times since 2010 because the envelopes were never signed, according to spokeswoman Kari Ewalt. Across Florida, election officials compare signed envelopes with signatures on file from registration records to be sure they match.
“Each time he was notified by mail of the error,” Ewalt said.
Palkovic said he never saw such notices. He said he plans to continue to vote by mail in the future. His votes counted in the 2016 general elections, the 2018 primaries and this year’s primary elections. They didn’t count most recently in the 2018 general elections or the presidential preference primary in March.
Palkovic urged a reporter to talk to his wife, Georgine, 66, because he said she was responsible in their household for mailing his ballots. She said she already mailed the couple’s ballots for next week’s election. Mrs. Palkovic is a registered Democrat who has made small donations to Democratic candidates last year and this year.
She said in an interview her husband probably didn’t vote during those years – a statement belied by elections records – then said she did not know why his ballots were so consistently rejected. Her own mail ballots were rejected only once in the past 12 years, during a municipal election in 2011, according to election records.
Osceola County is a rare Democratic stronghold in Florida, one of only nine counties where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in 2016.
Palkovic later said he will not discuss the matter further and asked not to be contacted again, even after a reporter offered to provide the county’s explanation why his votes didn’t count. He said he did not want to know.
In Gainesville – where the county also voted for Clinton in 2016 – Monica Thomas, 42, had her mail ballots rejected in five consecutive state and federal elections between 2008 and 2016, according to election records. Alexis White, Alachua County’s elections information specialist, confirmed that Thomas’ mail-in ballots were all rejected over mismatched signatures.
Before a reporter relayed this information to Thomas, she didn’t know why her votes had been disqualified all these years. She said she’s not sure how the signature mismatches could have happened.
While Alachua County sent Thomas letters each time her ballots were rejected, she said it never explained why exactly. The letters came too late to fix her ballots, she said.
“Ain’t no way I could try to fix the issue,” said Thomas, who is registered as an independent voter. “It’s just after the fact.”
Alachua County’s vote-by-mail coordinator, Mike Bruckman, said missing signatures – or signatures that don’t match – on ballots can be corrected if the ballot arrives early enough before the election.
Florida voters can return paperwork correcting ballot errors as late as 5 p.m. Thursday – two days after next week’s Election Day to have their votes counted in official results.
Thomas, who is Black, hasn’t given up on voting. She voted early and in-person in the 2018 general election and is voting by mail again in next week’s election. A University of Florida study earlier this year found that mail ballots cast in 2018 by Black, Hispanic and other racial and ethnic minorities were more than twice as likely to be rejected as ballots from white voters.
Thomas said she has been active on Twitter encouraging people to vote.
“If they don’t count mine, at least they count somebody else’s,” Thomas said.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com