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Leon County Canvassing Board Counts Mail-In Ballots Ahead Of Primary Election

Three members of the canvassing board wear masks and sit at separate tables with stacks of ballots.
Steve Bousquet/WFSU
The canvassing board counts ballots at the Leon County Elections Office on Apalachee Parkway.

Long days are ahead for the three people who make up Leon County’s canvassing board. These are the people who review vote-by-mail ballots that may not be valid.

In a scene playing out in all 67 counties, a record number of primary voters are voting by mail because of the pandemic.

“All right, the canvassing board for the August 18 primary is called to order.”

With those words, spoken from behind a face mask, Judge Augustus Aikens convened a meeting of the Leon County Canvassing Board on Friday, Aug. 14th. Aikens and two others – Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley and County Commissioner Nick Maddox – accepted 3,376 vote-by-mail ballots, all filled out properly.

But 38 ballots, fewer than 1 percent, were set aside for review because of possible defective signatures. One by one, the three officials carefully scrutinized each ballot, comparing each voter’s signature on the ballot envelope with the same voter’s older signatures on file. One of the votes was cast by 34-year-old Jesse Gilley.

“Well, the printing looks pretty good,” Earley said. “I mean, Jesse, in his handwritten part there, looks almost identical to the 2010 registration, and the Gilley is pretty darn close, too.”

Of the 38 questionable ballots, two were rejected, 13 were accepted, 6 were classified as likely to be accepted and the other 17 will require a cure in the form of a signed affidavit from the voter by 5 p.m. Thursday. The canvassing board will review those 17 ballots again.

Then there were 85 ballots with different issues. Some got wet. Some were torn. Some voters used a pencil or red ink, not a black or blue pen as required, so the tabulation machines couldn’t read them, but the voters’ choices were clear in every case.

Holly Thompson, the canvassing board’s staff liaison, said each ballot was re-created and triple-checked for accuracy. All 85 were accepted.

“They have been recreated by staff because it was very clear voter intent, and there is nothing here open for interpretation,” Thompson said.

Comparing voter signatures is not easy. People’s handwriting changes over time. What makes it harder is that in some cases, the only other example available is the voter’s digital signature from an electronic pad when they applied for a Florida driver’s license. Earley questions the reliability of a digital pad signature.

“Very little to go on when we’re comparing signatures, and the majority of our voter registrations, the newer ones, are coming from Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles,” Earley said. “As I testified in court, you can see similarities there, but when you start getting to the voting experts – and we are required to undergo signature verification training -- there’s very little to go on. So we’re operating under the concept that unless we see evidence of fraud or the signature is just completely different – we can’t see any similarities - then we accept it.”

Speaking for the canvassing board, Earley said he sees their mission as simple: to count every single valid vote.