Request for personal contact information on outer envelopes for vote-by-mail ballots raising alarm among voters ahead of March 8 Special Election

Supervisor of Elections Turner says no ballots will be rejected solely because individuals choose to leave spaces blank

This is an envelope for a vote-by-mail ballot for the March 8 Special Election. Contributed image

As vote-by-mail ballots have arrived in households, Sarasota County citizens have been expressing worries about information required on the outer envelope, in which the ballot is to be returned to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office.

As pointed out in emails sent to The Sarasota News Leader, the outer envelope calls for the voter to include his or her home telephone number, the person’s mobile phone number, and the individual’s email address.

Individuals have voiced alarm about such personal information being in plain view of the public, worrying about the potential for identity fraud.

A related question that has arisen is whether the personal contact details are necessary only for a person holding the power of attorney for the voter who is casting that individual ballot. The lines for the contact information are below a notice that says, “Power of Attorney Cannot Sign for Voter.”

Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner has been reassuring citizens that none of their returned vote-by-mail ballots will be rejected on the sole basis of omission of the personal information requested on the envelopes.

Nonetheless, individuals have indicated to the News Leader their fear that people simply will refrain from voting by mail as a result of the call for the personal contact details, even though voting by mail has proven to be an even more popular option since the first COVID-19 cases were identified in Florida in March 2020.

For the November 2020 General Election, the Supervisor of Elections Office mailed out 150,176 vote-by-mail ballots, 140,812 of which were returned and accepted, the staff reported.

Voter turnout in the county on Nov. 3, 2020 came close to setting a new record, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner and his staff noted.

As of the morning of Feb. 8, the Supervisor of Elections Office had received 118,210 vote-by-mail ballot requests for the March 8 Special Election on the Single-Member Districts voting system for County Commission seats and the Sarasota County Schools’ referendum on continuing a special 1-mill tax, Paul Donnelly, the office’s director of communications and voter outreach, told the News Leader.

As of the same date, he added, staff had issued 118,730 vote-by-mail ballots. The difference in the two numbers, he explained in an email, was a result “of duplicate ballots we have issued to voters who have lost, mismarked or otherwise spoiled their original vote-by-mail ballot and requested a replacement.”

On Feb. 10, the Elections Office website said a total of 350,607 county citizens are registered to vote. Feb. 7 was the deadline to register to vote in the March 8 referendums.

Last week, in response to concerns about the vote-by-mail ballot envelopes for the March 8 Special Election — which one person had raised in a Sarasota County Facebook group — Supervisor of Elections Turner wrote that he would “review the certificate envelope language that [she had] described for improvement and add some additional information on our website, etc.”

In a News Leader check of the Supervisor of Elections Office website on Feb. 10, this reporter found that information under the heading, Returning Your Ballot, includes this statement: “A vote-by-mail ballot will NOT be rejected solely due to the absence of [the] requested contact information.”

This is information found on the Supervisor of Elections Office website regarding returning vote-by-mail ballots. Image courtesy Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner

This week, the News Leader also contacted Turner’s staff to ask for clarification about the contact details requested on the outer envelopes.

“We sincerely regret any confusion,” Turner wrote. “We continually look for ways to improve the election process here in Sarasota County and appreciate hearing feedback or questions from voters about their voting experience.

Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner addresses the county commissioners on June 22, 2021. File image

“Regarding voters’ privacy concerns,” he continued, “the vote-by-mail voter certificate text, including the request for email and phone contact information, is prescribed by Florida law. State law also requires supervisor of elections staff to contact a voter in the event of a missing or mismatched signature on a vote-by-mail envelope, as soon as possible. The contact information located on the return ballot envelope is requested to help facilitate a way to contact a voter to help cure a signature issue on a vote-by-mail ballot envelope and, ultimately, ensure that all eligible ballots can be counted. The contact information is located on the outside of the envelope because state law does not allow vote-by-mail ballot envelopes to be opened until after the voter’s signature has been verified.”

“Cure” is the word supervisors of elections use to describe steps a voter can take to ensure that the ballot will be counted, including providing an updated signature for verification purposes, if the signature on the envelope does not match the signature on record.

Turner added, “Voters who provide the requested contact information on the ballot certificate envelope are doing so on a voluntary basis and that information is used to allow the elections office to contact a voter, if necessary. No vote-by-mail ballots will be rejected solely due to a lack of the requested contact information,” he added with emphasis.

Then he pointed out, “Regarding the notation that a Power of Attorney cannot sign a vote-by-mail envelope for a voter, this is the last election during which that statement will be included on the return vote-by-mail ballot envelope. The notation will be removed for future elections.”

Finally, Turner wrote, “We encourage any voter who has any questions to contact the supervisor of elections office by calling 941-861-8618.”