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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
March 10, 2016

Memo to Candidates and Parties:

What More Voters Need to Know


Dr. Susan A. MacManus, University of South Florida

With the assistance of

Anthony Cilluffo, USF research assistant


Winning elections requires effective voter mobilization at each stage of the election process—registration, turnout and the actual casting of a ballot, the counting and certification of ballots, and the contesting of results.  Candidates, political activists, and party officials would do well to heed the results of a recent survey of state and local elections officials that identifies what information voters most often inquire about concerning the voting process.

Savvy campaigns will devise means to fill in these knowledge gaps. This is particularly important this year in light of the influx of new voters—first-time voters and others who have moved to Florida from places where election laws and processes differ from ours in the Sunshine State.

The results of the survey reported here can serve as a check list for what to do to improve the likelihood that a citizen will register, vote, and be confident their vote will be counted. Every election, new and veteran voters alike need to be reminded of the basics.  


Voter Registration: Clear Up Confusion (Figure 1)

Help clear up confusion among potential voters by explaining that a voter must:

  • Register by political party in order to vote in a closed primary—and distinguish between a closed primary and general election. Voters who are registered as No Party Affiliation or with a minor party cannot vote in a Republican or Democratic primary election. Party changes are not allowed at the polls on Election Day.
  • Keep your signature updated if anything about it has changed because of such things as age or disability. This is especially important if you vote absentee or sign initiative or candidate petitions because signatures on these documents are compared to the signature that is on file at the Supervisor of Elections office.
  • Update your address if you have moved since you last registered. This ensures that you will receive important information, such as a vote-by-mail ballot or notification of a polling place location change.
  • Register or update your registration at least 29 days before an upcoming election. (You can register at any time, but applications received between the 29-day deadline and Election Day do not go into effect until the next election.)
  • Meet eligibility requirements (U.S. citizen, Florida resident, at least 18 years old, have never been legally judged ineligible to vote), and
  • Update your party affiliation at least 29 days before an upcoming election if you want to change it.


Figure 1. Voter Registration Topics

          Question: “Which of the following topics would you like to see the media (local TV and radio stations) devote

          more attention to in their election coverage this year?” Multiple response question format.

          Source: Print survey of 156 elections professionals attending the FSASE 2016 Canvassing Board Workshop,

          conducted January 14, 2016, by Dr. Susan A. MacManus.


Actual Voting: When, Where, How, and For Whom (Figure 2)

Voters often need help with the mechanics of voting:

  • Provide a sample ballot, or information about where to find one.
  • Explain how one can vote by mail (absentee ballot); remind voters about signing the envelope.
  • Explain early in-person voting, starting a minimum of 10 days before an election and ending no sooner than the third day before an election. But make sure you provide specific details about the days and hours available in the county where the voter is registered. Counties differ.
  • Inform voters how to locate their voting precinct location and what form of identification to bring with them.


Figure 2. Voting Specifics

Question: “Which of the following topics would you like to see the media (local TV and radio stations) devote more attention to in their election coverage this year?” Multiple response question format. Source: Print survey of 156 elections professionals attending the FSASE 2016 Canvassing Board Workshop, conducted January 14, 2016, by Dr. Susan A. MacManus.


Counting Ballots: Dispel Myths (Figure 3)

Vote counting typically goes unnoticed, unless a specific race or ballot issue is close—and Florida has had a number of close elections in recent years. In addition, the highly contested Bush v. Gore race in 2000 continues to haunt the public memory, making some voters doubt whether their ballots actually matter.

Election officials sometimes encounter public misperceptions. One survey respondent, for example, noted the myth that absentee ballots are counted only if needed, urging journalists: “Help squash this untruth.”

Since Florida is a very competitive state and so many elections are close, it is important to explain that voting is an electronic process with a number of built-in safeguards to ensure that every valid vote is counted. In particular:

  • As voters press “Enter” on voting machines, their ballots are scanned and votes tabulated electronically. When the poll closes, poll workers follow a shut-down procedure before reporting results to the county canvassing board.
  • Election results are considered unofficial until the county canvassing board certifies winners and notifies the Secretary of State. The canvassing board meets publicly to certify and count any ballots that staff may have questioned, such as a non-matching signature or a problem with a provisional or absentee ballot. (County Canvassing Boards are comprised of the county Supervisor of Elections, a county court judge, and the chair of the Board of County Commissioners. Any officials that are standing in an opposed election may not serve and are replaced according to provided policies. Reference Florida Statutes, Title IX, Chapter 102.141.)
  • There is an automatic recount procedure in place if a candidate is defeated by one-half of 1 percent or less. If the margin between the two candidates is one-quarter of 1 percent or less, then a manual recount occurs. This is provided for in the Florida Statutes, Title IX, Chapter 102.141.
  • Voters can track whether an absentee ballot or provisional ballot they cast was counted (deemed valid) and if not, why.


Figure 3. Counting and Contesting of Ballots

Question: “Which of the following topics would you like to see the media (local TV and radio stations) devote

         more attention to in their election coverage this year?” Multiple response question format.

         Source: Print survey of 156 elections professionals attending the FSASE 2016 Canvassing Board Workshop,

         conducted January 14, 2016, by Dr. Susan A. MacManus.


More Detailed Advice on Information Voters Often Lack

Many of the survey respondents identified specifics that need to be relayed to voters and advocacy groups involved in voter mobilization efforts. Some of the areas of concern involve:

  • What constitutes a validly cast vote.
  • Details of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) and how it impacts elections.
  • The differences between a closed and open primary.
  • The procedure for requesting an absentee ballot.
  • The collection and return of multiple absentee ballots.
  • Sending absentee ballots, specifically sending multiple ballots to one address when many of those people do not live at that address.
  • Uncertainty in USPS (postal service) delivery time, meaning it can take longer for a voter’s absentee ballot to be returned to the Supervisor of Elections’ office.
  • What are the acceptable forms of identification at the polling place.
  • It is a good idea to verify in advance that you are registered. Most county Supervisor of Elections websites have a “look-up” feature. A person can also directly call the Supervisor of Elections office.
  • Updating one’s voting signature is very important, especially when voting by mail. The signature on one’s voter registration application must be consistent with that on the returned absentee ballot.
  • If mailing back an absentee ballot to the Supervisor of Elections, allow at least 5 days to return by the 7 PM deadline on Election Day. Under new postal standards, domestic in-county mail takes at least 5 days to return by mail. An alternative is to use drop off locations.
  • Voters should bring proper ID with a photo and a signature to the polling place.
  • How to properly mark a ballot—follow instructions (e.g., “vote for one”).
  • Be an informed voter to be a successful voter.
  • Precinct info—where to find your precinct location.
  • Early voting locations and timing can’t be stressed enough.
  • Election Day rights and remedies should be discussed in advance of Election Day AND on Election Day itself to avoid voter frustration.
  • Why you need to vote in your residential address precinct and the importance of correct address.
  • Stress voter responsibilities—registration, know candidates + issues.
  • Just wish the media would report what was actually said.
  • Explain why early voting hours are different among counties.
  • Election dates—presidential preference, primary, and general.
  • The need to replace a lost registration card.
  • Registration cards are a great source of information about precinct number, polling location, party affiliation, and congressional and state legislative (Senate, House) districts.
  • How to look up voting/precinct locations.
  • Voter rights and responsibilities
  • Election websites to self look up and check registration and absentee status; USPS slow delivery times
  • Where + how to sign a ballot (Absentee).
  • Need to check your “registered signature” and make sure your signature on absentee ballot matches.
  • Who is allowed in polling places and early voting sites.
  • The ease of voting early.
  • Inform voter there are three convenient ways to vote: early voting, Vote by Mail, and at polling place on Election Day.
  • Links to websites of each Supervisor of Elections—will aid in answering many questions.
  • The inaccuracy of exit polls; based on a statistical sample, not actual data.
  • People need to know how many hours of hard work go into putting on an election. They don’t just happen. Many, many labor-intensive hours of hard work are involved.
  • Local media interviews of elections officials are useful for increasing voter knowledge so long as information provided is reported as true & correct.
  • Provide biographies of judges and justices standing for Judicial Merit Retention elections.
  • Verify mail receipt thru USPS mail of Supervisor of Elections’ receipt of absentee ballot.
  • Insofar as voter eligibility requirements, the state needs to define “residency” by statute.  Too many voters who formerly lived/registered in Florida continue to vote here usually by absentee. Only military personnel and college students should be considered residents of Fla. while not physically residing in the state. Many have homes in two states. But they should only vote in Fla if their official resident (homestead) is here.

Educating Voters: A Big Job That Requires a Cooperative Effort

Campaigns, party officials, and the media can refer voters to the website of the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections, At that site, voters can check their voter registration status, identify their polling place, and find a toll-free voter assistance hotline, among other kinds of information.

Another way to better inform voters, according to the vast majority of elections officials (80 percent) in our survey, would be for local TV/radio journalists to interview elections officials on critical election-related topics. Many respondents offered additional suggestions for the media. One respondent, for example, said, “The media tends to focus and seek out the negative, which really diminishes voter trust. Try a positive story now and then.”

The bottom line is that educating the state’s 12 million voters requires a gargantuan effort—by election officials, the media, AND candidates themselves.  The campaigns that recognize and address the knowledge gaps among Florida voters will have a much better chance of winning…and the public will win as well with a more informed electorate.

About the Survey

The survey’s major purpose was to inform local media (radio and television) about how their reporters could better craft more informative election-related stories—a concept known as “explanatory journalism.” A written survey (anonymous) was distributed to those attending the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections 2016 Canvassing Board Workshop on January 14, 2016—county Supervisors of Elections and their staff, county commissioners, and county judges. Completed surveys came from 156 people, for 52% response rate.  The results were presented at a “Covering Elections for Better Local Broadcasting” seminar sponsored by The Poynter Institute for Media Studies.