Why some mail-in ballots get rejected and how to be sure your vote is counted

Some of the most common reasons absentee ballots get rejected are missing or unmatched signatures and a late postmark. (Wikimedia Commons)

Election officials in Fayette County, Kentucky rejected 1,572 absentee ballots from the June primary because they were missing an inner envelope flap.

In California, 70,330 absentee ballots got tossed because they missed the postmark deadline.

And in New York City, a staggering 21% of absentee ballots were rejected in the primary for various reasons.

As many Americans  opt to vote by absentee ballot this election season rather than risk contracting COVID-19 at the polls, there is high scrutiny on the thousands of rejected ballots from recent primary elections.

“Those stories just haunt me because it’s the gap between desire and impact,” said Whitney Queensbury, the executive director for the Center of Civic Design.

Rejection rates in five battleground states during this year’s primary ranged from under 1% to nearly 2%, according to a recent CBS News analysis. For comparison, a little under 1% of returned absentee ballots were rejected nationwide in 2016, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Experts say that ballots can get tossed for a multitude of reasons that can occur at any point along the ballot’s journey: on its way to the voter, while in the voter’s hands, and during the postal trip back to election officials.

“These are mistakes that don’t have to do with the voter’s eligibility to vote, but more following the instructions for getting the ballot to the election official,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, the co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Mistakes in filling out the ballot

One of the most common reasons that election officials reject ballots is missing or incomplete information. 

“You’d be surprised how many people just don’t sign their ballot, said Audrey Kline, the national policy director at the National Vote at Home Institute. 

In California, 27,525 ballots were rejected from the March primary because of a missing or unmatched signature. Slightly more than 23,000 votes were trashed in Wisconsin earlier this year mostly because of a missing signature, almost exactly President Donald Trump’s margin of victory in the state in 2016.

“Oftentimes we see these types of mistakes, basically disenfranchising voters because their votes are rejected because they didn’t follow all of the instructions,” Johnson-Blanco said. “It’s not always intuitive.”

This is why voter education is critical, especially in an election where many people will vote absentee for the first time and may not know all the requirements for their vote to count. Seven states — Alaska, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama — require a witness signature in addition to the voter signature to verify the ballot, and three states — Oklahoma, Missouri, and Mississippi — require a notarized signature. Voters in Alabama and Arkansas also need to send a copy of their ID with their ballot.

“Voters who are now engaging in absentee voting or vote-by-mail are not very familiar with the process,” Johnson-Blanco said. “Each state has very specific rules about what that process is. And unfortunately, if you miss one of the steps in the process, your ballot can get rejected.”

According to design expert Quesenbery, ballot rejection can be mitigated with good, clear graphic design.

“The design can and does make a difference,” she said.

The Center for Civic Design has specifically focused on absentee ballot envelope design, creating a set of vote-by-mail design packages that local election officials across the country can adapt. 

The envelopes are designed to be recognizable, readable, and simple for the postal service to process. They feature bold headings to act as guidelines for the reader, instructions written in plain language and a final checklist. The color, a bright purple for the 2020 elections, wraps around the envelope to make them stand out in a stack of mail.

The Center for Civic Design created a national model for absentee ballot envelopes, continuing work they started with California in 2017. The blue coloring here indicates that it is an outgoing envelope; the return envelopes are purple. (Center for Civic Design)

“Everything about the envelope, every bit of the design — except the amount of words on it, which are state law — is designed to get the ballot there and back accurately, with everybody who touches that ballot package being able to do their part with minimal errors.”

Sending the ballot back by deadline

The next step in ensuring that an absentee ballot counts is returning it to election officials in time.

“One of the biggest barriers to getting your vote counted by mail is oftentimes that postmark,” Kline said. “Lots of people think that no matter where they’re at, they can just put their ballot in the mail on Election Day and it will count. That’s not necessarily true everywhere.”

Extending the postmark deadline is “the easiest way to enfranchise a lot of voters,” she said, and can be accomplished via executive order, rule change or legislation.

A federal judge in Manhattan, for example, recently ordered that election officials must count absentee ballots that were postmarked by June 24 in the state’s hotly contested 12th congressional district primary race. The ballots had postage-paid return envelopes, which don’t always get postmarked and therefore were rejected under state postmark law.

There has also been rising concern over a deluge of absentee ballots overwhelming the United States Postal Service and creating delays. Experts say this is largely unfounded, even as the newly-appointed postmaster general implements new policies that could affect how and when mail gets processed.

“Someone in California might get ten pieces of mail related to the election and one ballot,” Queensbury said. “They get all the rest of that stuff through. They can get the damn ballots through.” She pointed out that the postal service has no trouble processing other spikes in mail delivery, such as holiday cards and retail flyers for Black Friday. 

It’s a position USPS itself also holds. Marti Johnson, a spokeswoman for the service, wrote in an email that dwindling funds won’t affect USPS’s ability to process election mail.

“The Postal Service has ample capacity to adjust our nationwide processing and delivery network to meet projected election and political mail volume, including any additional volume that may result as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she wrote. “Our network is designed to handle increases in volume and deliver that mail in a timely manner.”

She recommended requesting an absentee ballot at least 15 days before the election and sending it no later than a week before the election, using first-class mail if possible. This advice conflicts with some state policies that allow voters to request a ballot within days of the election.

Once the absentee ballot gets back to the election officials, however, there are policies that can still invalidate it.

One such policy is signature matching, which is used to validate the voter’s identity. Many counties compare the signature on an absentee ballot with the one on file in the voter registration, but experts argue that this could be an imperfect security measure as people’s signatures change over their lifetime.

A recent study from the University of Florida found that younger voters and voters who need assistance are more likely to have their ballot rejected, potentially in part because of this signature issue. “An individual’s signature may be fluid throughout life and might be more variable among the youngest voters who are not yet accustomed to providing signatures for verification. As a result, some voter registrants may be more likely to have discrepancies between their current signatures and what is on file with local election offices,” the study reads.

Solutions at the policy level

Kline said that some of the best ways to ensure fewer absentee ballot rejections are statewide rejection standards and an extended cure time, or period of time election officials can contact voters to fix missing or inaccurate information. Thirteen states allow voters to cure their signature defect after Election Day, according to the Brennan Center. 

“That’s something that should be universal,” Johnson-Blanco said of ballot curing. 

Other practices that can reduce ballot rejection include ballot tracking, voter notification and accessible dropboxes, according to Kline.

“If you’re one of our five-star, gold star vote-at-home states, it’s kind of difficult to mess it up because we have put in all these stopgap measures to make sure that the vote is going to get counted if it’s valid,” she said. 

To learn more about your state’s requirements for voting absentee, visit the National Vote at Home Institute’s online voter center.

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