New paper, “Voting by Mail in a VENMO World: Assessing Rejected Absentee Ballots in Georgia,” by Enrijeta Shino (Assistant Professor, University of North Florida (UF  PhD, 2019), Mara Suttmann-Lea (Assistant Professor, Connecticut College), and Daniel A. Smith (Professor, University of Florida), available here.

Due to the COVID-19 threat to in-person voting in the November 2020 election, state and local election officials have turned to mail voting as a potential solution. Vote-by-mail (VBM) may not be a panacea, however. Even though state election codes lay out guidelines and uniform requirements for confirming the eligibility of voters casting mail ballots, some voters may lack information on how to correctly fill out or return a VBM envelope, leaving local election officials considerable discretion when validating mail ballots. This is particularly concerning if underrepresented subgroups of the electorate—racial and ethnic minorities, young voters, female, and those newly registered—are disproportionately more likely to have their identifying information on the back of a VBM ballot return envelope challenged. Merging Georgia’s statewide voter files with county-level U.S Census Bureau data, we analyze VBM ballot rejection rates in the state’s 2018 General Election. Using Heckman sample selection models, we find that newly registered, young, female, and minority voters have rejection rates that are higher compared to their counterparts, varying from 4 to 7 percentage points.

New paper, “Voting by Mail and Ballot Rejection: Lessons from Florida for Elections in the Age of the Coronavirus,” by Anna Baringer (UF  2020 BA/BS), Michael C. Herron (Dartmouth College), and Daniel A. Smith (UF Political Science), available here

The coronavirus and its concomitant need for social distancing have increased the attractiveness of voting by mail (VBM). VBM voting is nonetheless not a panacea for election administration in the time of a pandemic, and this is because a widespread move to this form of voting risks exacerbating existing inequities in mail-in ballot rejection rates across voters and jurisdictions. This motivates our examination of over 8.2 million ballots cast in the 2018 General Election in Florida, including 2.6 million VBM ballots, of which approximately 1.2 percent were rejected by local election officials. We theorize as to why rejected VBM ballots might be linked to individual voter characteristics and to election official discretion, offer a battery of descriptive statistics detailing rejected ballots in Florida’s 2018 election, and provide results from a selection
model that analyzes all of the state’s voters in 2018. We find that younger voters and voters needing assistance are disproportionately likely to have their VBM ballots rejected. We also find disproportionately high rejection rates for out-of-state and military dependents. Lastly, we find significant variation in the rejection rates of VBM ballots cast across Florida’s 67 counties,  suggesting a non-uniformity in the way local election officials verify these ballots. As interest in VBM swells in light of the coronavirus, protecting the rights of all voters requires understanding why some voters’ mail ballots are rejected—diminishing their ability to participate in electoral politics—and how this might be rectified.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded Dr. Michael P. McDonald a $850,000 grant to collect, disseminate, and visualize precinct boundaries and election results.

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University awarded the 2018 Brown Democracy Medal to the Public Mapping Project, an initiative led by Micah Altman, director of research and head of the program on information science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. The Public Mapping Project disseminates the DistrictBuilder software and data to empower the public to draw legal redistricting plans.