Vote-by-mail envelopes seeking optional contact information are causing confusion and worry for voters who assume the details are required for ballots to count

LAKELAND — When Cindy Reynolds prepared to send in her ballot by mail for the presidential primary, she viewed the back of the envelope with dismay.

Under the boxes outlined in red indicated for her signature and the date, the Winter Haven resident found lines requesting more information: her email address and her home and mobile phone numbers.

In an era of rampant identify theft, Reynolds feared posting such personal information on the outside of the envelope, where it might be viewed by others before it reached the Polk County Supervisor of Elections office.

“I filled it out and then I told my husband, ‘I can’t send this in’,” Reynolds said.

She said her husband called the Supervisor of Elections office and was informed that only the signature and date are required. It is optional for voters to provide the contact information.

That certainly wasn’t the only such phone call the office has received since mail-in ballots went out starting Feb. 13, Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said.

“They’re just generally mad,” Edwards said of the callers.

Edwards’ staff has been explaining that the contact information is not required for the vote to be counted.

The change to the envelopes resulted from a bill passed last year by the Florida Legislature. That bill, developed by the Senate Rules Committee, ordered that mail-in envelopes include the requests for voters’ email addresses and phone numbers.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, was a member of the committee.

The changes were included in HB 7066, a measure that drew attention mainly for setting the rules under which former felons would regain the right to vote. That bill, which has been challenged in court, implemented a constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters in 2018.

All eight legislators from Polk County voted for HB 7066, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law.

Edwards said the revision of the envelope was intended to give election officials a quicker way to reach a voter if an envelope is unsigned or there is a question about a signature matching that on file with the office. Previously, the office would send a letter, which might not reach the voter in time to have the ballot accepted before the deadline.

“So that was their thought process, but people are understandably resistant — and so the main thing we’re trying to get out there is it’s not required,” Edwards said. “Your vote will still count.”

The placement of the information lines, just below the box that voters must sign and date, has led some voters to assume the contact details are required.

Edwards said election supervisors from around the state opposed the legislation.

“I am as upset about it as she is,” Edwards said when told of Reynolds’ reaction. “The Florida Legislature made that a requirement, and I’m not happy about it. We as supervisors of elections opposed it, but they did it anyway.”

The lines for the voter’s signature and the date are larger and bordered in red. Labels above and to the side announce, “VOTER MUST SIGN.”

Though there is no indication that the contact information is required, the envelopes don’t make clear that it is merely optional.

Reynolds said she initially wrote her contact information on the envelope but then marked over it. Edwards said her office will count ballots that arrive in envelopes with the optional information written in and then crossed out, just as it will count those sent without the contact information.

Edwards said her office has fielded “a lot” of phone calls from angry or confused voters.

“We’re also suggesting they call their legislators,” she said. “It’s not just Polk. Supervisors of elections all over the state are having the same thing happen, and we are discussing it among ourselves.”

Registered voters also have the options of casting ballots early at selected sites or voting at their designated polling place on March 17.

Kathie Sutherland, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Polk County, said she has heard from local voters worried their votes wouldn’t count if they didn’t include the contact information. She said she knows of some who refrained from voting because they thought the information was required and they refused to provide it.

“To me, this is another form of voter suppression,” Sutherland said. “We get higher turnout when people vote by mail, so when we add a barrier, such as making them nervous because now they’ve made their email and phone number and private information public information by writing it on the back of the envelope — it’s just completely unacceptable.”

Sutherland said local Democrats asked Edwards to add wording to the envelope explaining that the contact information isn’t mandatory. Edwards said election supervisors are exploring their ability to do that.

J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party, had a different reaction than Sutherland. Martin said he didn’t hesitate to write his email address and phone number on the envelope when he voted by mail in the Republican primary.

Martin noted that people’s signatures often change over time. He said he knows of Polk County residents who had problems with their signatures not matching those on file with the Supervisor of Elections office in the 2018 election.

“I’m very supportive of that as an option,” Martin said. “It’s not required, so it’s not like a mandatory data collection, but it’s there and I think it serves a good purpose — to make sure every vote counts. I see it as a net plus, and if folks decide not to put their email or phone number on there they won’t be penalized.”

Martin did say that perhaps wording should be added to the envelopes to make it clear that providing the contact information is optional.

Voters concerned that their signature might not match that on file with the Supervisor of Elections can update them using forms available online at www.polkelections.com. Voters can also request that the form be mailed by calling 863-534-5888.

Jessie Gomez, president of the League of Women Voters of Polk County, said she had not heard about the change and resisted returning her mailed ballot after seeing the request for contact information. Gomez said she has seen “a lot of chatter” about the revised envelopes.

“A lot of people are seeing that as invasion of privacy,” she said.

Gomez said she hopes Edwards and other election supervisors will relay the complaints to legislators, in the hopes that they will either remove the request for personal information or add an explanation that it is not required.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.