Florida Election Workers Warn Chaos Is Coming Without Reform : The NPR Politics Podcast Recent changes to Florida's election laws institute new requirements that, as designed, could cause huge numbers of ballots to be rejected in the state — a key presidential battleground. Election workers are warning that, without reforms, ballot counting could be extremely slow and voters in the state could be unexpectedly disenfranchised.

This episode: political correspondent Susan Davis, political correspondent Ashley Lopez, and voting correspondent Miles Parks.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Research and fact-checking by Devin Speak.

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Florida Election Workers Warn Chaos Is Coming Without Reform

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BEATRICE: Hi. This is Beatrice (ph)...

LLOYD: ...Lloyd (ph)...

RUTH: ...Ruth (ph)...

RAFAEL: ...Rafael (ph)...

LAURA: ...Laura (ph)...

SUELO: ...Suelo (ph)...

SOPHIA: ...Sophia (ph)...

MISS JOHNSTON: ...And Miss Johnston (ph) in London, England.



LLOYD: We're in Miss Johnston's politics class.

RUTH: And we've just spent the last year comparing our two political systems.

RAFAEL: Our overall conclusion - no system is perfect, and sometimes it could be a wild ride.


BEATRICE: This podcast was recorded at...

DAVIS: 12:19 p.m. on Tuesday, January 31.

SUELO: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but we will still be working on getting that A.



DAVIS: No system is perfect, indeed. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

DAVIS: And Florida election workers want their state to throw out new vote-by-mail restrictions that are set to be rolled out next year. They say the measures could present serious logistical and security issues. So Ashley, what does the new law change about Florida's election laws?

LOPEZ: The changes to Florida law are mostly around mail ballots - at least that's what we're talking about here. Under these new rules, Florida voters are going to have to add either a partial Social Security number or their driver's license number to their mail ballot when they return it. It's a way for Florida election officials to verify their identity. Before, voters just had to provide a voter signature, and now they're going to have to provide all of that on a ballot. In short, this is a plan that was sort of, like, part of this, like, big bill. It didn't get a lot of attention. But now that it's set to be rolled out next year during elections - during the presidential primary, probably, will be the first - election officials are very concerned, on the local level especially.

DAVIS: Why do they say it's going to be so difficult to implement?

LOPEZ: This is, like, basic feasibility stuff. So on the one hand - let's start with the kind of obvious stuff. It's a lot of money upfront, right? So election workers are - would need to make some pretty serious investments in, like, new materials, voter materials, like finding ballots - a form of a ballot - that could maybe shield those ID numbers because there's obviously an identity fraud or identity theft worry there or another ballot - like, another envelope to put the ballot in so, like, just another way to shield the ballot from anyone who is sort of, like, dealing with mail. And then there's the machines to help, you know, scan those ballots because this would be a different kind of material. Like, they would have to invest in those new machines. And then there's the added labor costs. Like, any time you add an extra step to counting ballots, like, that just means more time, more people. And local election workers say, like, that's going to be a big cost for them where there's already a lot of strain in finding people to do this work.

And then there's just the, I would say, the bigger sort of access issue here, right? So the way that a lot of Florida voters register to vote is through getting their driver's license - so the basic motor voter program. And so that means that on people's voter file, they are more likely to have a driver's license number than they are any other identifying number. But if you ask people, like, do you remember your driver's license number or, like, the last four of your social, people will put down their last four of their social 'cause that's easier to remember, and they have to use it for a lot more things. So election officials are worried that when people return their ballot, they're going to be returning it with an identifying number that's, like, really not on their voter file. So that's just going to open up a serious slew of issues here. And it's kind of hard to tell how many people this would affect. But local election workers and officials say it could be a lot of voters.

DAVIS: I can tell you that I am one of those people that has no clue what their driver's license number...

LOPEZ: That's right.

DAVIS: ...Is, but knows exactly what the last four digits of their Social Security number is. So I can see how that could be a problem.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

DAVIS: Miles, this is so interesting to me because I don't think - there's so much focus on the political nature of changing voting laws and ballot access laws. But I'm not sure people realize how much bureaucratic effort can go into just even minor changes to a ballot.

PARKS: And I think there's the sense, honestly, from the people who are running the election at the county and, like, local level, that the legislatures who are writing the laws that are changing these things sometimes don't even know themselves. So it's not just like...

LOPEZ: That's right.

PARKS: ...The normal person doesn't really understand these systems. Like, there's a lot of fear from county clerks and election supervisors that the people who are actually writing the laws didn't even really think about this.

One of the interesting subplots about this story, to me, is this kind of collective action among kind of local election supervisors. Like, if one county clerk in Florida was saying, oh, I'm really nervous about how we're going to implement this, you know, I don't really have the money for this equipment, like, that might kind of go unnoticed. But what you're seeing here is that this association of all the county election supervisors in Florida are saying, collectively, we do not want this to happen. We have no idea how we're going to make this work. And in just the last couple of years, we're seeing a lot more of that collective action among the local clerks to try and lobby legislatures to make laws that make their lives better, you know, instead of worse.

LOPEZ: It's to the point where a work group of all 67 election supervisors here in Florida - which, by the way, these are partisan offices, so we're talking Democrats and Republicans - expressed some pretty serious concerns, at least, about these new rules. So, I mean, it is across the board, across the political spectrum that election workers kind of got together in a report and sent it to the state elections sort of agency that oversees elections here, which is, I think, pretty notable.

PARKS: Yeah, that's so big. The difference between, like, if it was just one Democratic, you know...

LOPEZ: Right.

PARKS: ...County clerk who was saying that, then maybe the Florida legislature could say, well, no, that's just somebody being partisan who has issue with our voting laws. They, you know, they want to, you know, cut down election security. But when you have Republicans and Democrats on the same page, it's always more powerful.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

DAVIS: So Ashley, is there any recourse here? Is the legislature responsive to this? Is the governor responsive to this, or is there any expectation that they might actually change the implementation process?

LOPEZ: You know, we're going to get a better picture of that soon because, in that bill, the Department of State, which oversees elections, is supposed to weigh in and kind of give their take on this soon. But I don't know. I don't think there's a history of states changing their voting laws, like, once they put one of these restrictions in place. I mean, I would love for Miles to weigh in because I can't think of any instance where, you know, since 2020, a state put some new voting rules and restrictions in place and then took it back because election officials raised concerns about the feasibility or access issues that it presents. But - so I think that's a long shot. But I think depending on what, you know, the agency here, the Department of State says about this, maybe there could be some tweaks. But if the Department of State signs off on it, I think that's going to be a long shot that there's any change.

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, I don't think we've seen any state legislature just back down because election officials have raised concerns. But I think what you could potentially see is, like, some tweaks around the edges to make it more feasible. You know, something - it's not like the legislature's going to say, no, we actually decided we don't want more mail ballot security or something like that.

You know, we're in a pretty unprecedented time. There's been more election legislation that's been drafted and passed in the last couple of years than in the previous decade combined, right? And so what I do think legislatures are kind of realizing is that, you know, there's kind of two conversations to have. There's the political calculation, and then there's the, how are we going to make this work? I don't think it's unreasonable to expect the legislature could make some tweaks to make it, you know, work a little better.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about this in a second.

And we're back. And, Ashley, there is sort of a model for how this implementation might go because in your home state of Texas, they implemented very similar new ballot laws, right?

LOPEZ: Yeah, it's almost exactly the same. So last year during our gubernatorial primary, the state put into effect and rolled out very similar measures - voter ID, which is either a partial social or a driver's license on mail ballots. And they had similar kind of issues. They had to make sure - you know, there were worries about the voter ID matching what was on file. But the state did backfill a lot of data. So that turned out to be less of an issue.

On the bigger issue, it turns out, in that first election in March, is that voters just missed the field - that, you know, people who vote by mail in Texas - it's a small group of people. It's people who are over 65, disabled or in jail, but not convicted, or out of town. And it's a very small subsect of voters, and they usually vote by mail. So they were kind of tripped up by this change because they had been voting the same way for a while. And then all of a sudden there was this new field, and they didn't fill it out. And so that caused a lot of issues in March. I will say during the last election, the general election, after a lot of voter education and I think there was some redesign to make the ballot, that part of the ballot, easier to see, that rejection rate came way down. So in March, it was about - a little bit over 12% of ballots...

DAVIS: That's a lot. Yeah.

LOPEZ: ...That were returned - yeah, it's a lot - were rejected. It was a very big issue in March. And this last election, it was about 2.7. So it did improve over time. But what we have to remember about Florida is that they would be rolling this out during a presidential primary. And we can think about just the significance of Florida in that, especially if we're talking about the Republican primary, right? Like, it looks like, you know, two Florida men will be potentially...

DAVIS: (Laughter).

LOPEZ: ...Maybe, running for president. That could be very interesting to watch. But also, more people vote by mail in Florida. About a third...

DAVIS: A lot more, right?

LOPEZ: Yeah, it's - about a third of ballots cast in elections in Florida are mail ballots - maybe even just a tiny bit more than a third. And that only grows every year for the most part. So it's a very significant number of ballots that could be affected by this.

DAVIS: I mean, the implementation of this raises a lot of the bureaucratic questions, but there's also the political nature that mail-in balloting has become, at least for Republican voters. And you raise the point about possibly having two Floridians. But, Miles, obviously former President Donald Trump has raised all sorts of false doubts about mail-in balloting. But Ron DeSantis, who signed this law, has not. You know, he has actually been an advocate for mail-in balloting and has encouraged people to do it as most recently as his last successful reelection campaign. So it's not necessarily like DeSantis signed this law because he doesn't want people to mail in ballot. He actually has been more encouraging of a lot of other Republicans in the field.

PARKS: Well, and the other thing I'd add to that, which I think is really interesting, is that there was a lot of gloating after the 2022 midterms by, you know, Republican officials in Florida saying, we do this right. We have our elections...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

PARKS: ...Really quick. Look at Arizona. Look at Nevada. Look at all these other states that take a while to get their election results. It's really fast here in Florida, where you're talking about implementing a new rule change that all of your election supervisors, Republicans and Democrats, are saying will take a lot longer to process mail ballots, which, you know, the downstream effect of that is that we could see results take longer in Florida. And I just - I find it hard to believe that Governor Ron DeSantis, who spent so much time playing up how well elections in Florida run in 2022, wants to add kind of a results delay into that equation.

LOPEZ: Yeah, another great point by Miles. I will say every election worker I talked to said that mantle of, like, fastest state for election results will go away if this goes into effect. They don't see how they could continue to be as quick when they have to deal with all these new requirements.

PARKS: Yeah. It's kind of, like, a if-it-ain't-broke, don't-fix-it kind of situation.

DAVIS: Yeah. Anything that could result in slower returns on election night, especially a presidential night, especially in a state like Florida, is not something I think anybody who works in the election integrity space is excited to see happen.



DAVIS: All right. Well, if there's any changes in this law, I'm sure, Ashley, you'll be covering it. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast today.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thank you.

DAVIS: And we'll be back in your feed soon. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

LOPEZ: I'm Ashley Lopez. I also cover politics.

PARKS: And I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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