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A 2020 Surprise: Fewer Absentee Ballot Rejections Than Expected

A West Bloomfield, Mich., Clerk's Office employee sorts absentee ballots by the precinct and ballot number on Oct. 31.
Jeff Kowalsky
AFP via Getty Images
A West Bloomfield, Mich., Clerk's Office employee sorts absentee ballots by the precinct and ballot number on Oct. 31.

Florida resident Kirk Nielsen was very careful when he went to vote this fall. He did it early and deposited his mail-in ballot in one of many drop boxes provided by his local election office in Miami-Dade County.

"So early voting, drop box. Checked the supervisor of elections website a couple of days later and it was tabulated," he said. "It worked swell."

That was a relief for Nielsen, whose vote did not count in 2018. His ballot arrived too late, despite being mailed more than a week before Election Day.

NPR reported earlier this year that more than a half-million mail-in votes were rejected in the 2020 primaries for similar reasons. The ballots arrived too late or had missing or mismatched signatures.

And with many more people voting by mail this fall, election officials feared that millions more ballots would be rejected in the general election.

It didn't happen. Instead, rejection rates went down across the country, in states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Florida — although final numbers are still coming in.

Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, says that out of almost 5 million mail-in ballots cast in his state this fall, fewer than 9,000 were rejected, a much lower rate than in previous elections.

He said it wasn't because voters made fewer mistakes.

"The rates of ballots being flagged for problems wasn't any lower than in past elections. It's just that individuals were able to cure their ballots in a timely fashion to make sure that their ballots would count," said Smith.

Fixes and cures

As in many other states, Florida made it easier this year for voters to fix, or "cure," their ballots. For example, Florida's mail-in ballot envelopes included space where voters could provide their email address or phone number, allowing election officials to contact them more quickly about mistakes, so they could be fixed on time.

That change also provided crucial contact information for campaigns and interest groups, so they too could reach out to voters to make sure that their ballots counted. And indeed, many groups did just that, helping their supporters cure their ballots as part of aggressive get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Jared Dearing, executive director of Kentucky's board of elections, says his state also took steps to help absentee voters after more than 25,000 ballots were rejected in the June primary. Prior to the pandemic, only about 2% of Kentucky voters cast their ballots by mail, compared with 75% this year. There were some growing pains.

"So what we tried to do is create 1) uniformity of process and 2) to give some pretty clear guidelines to the counties of what could be counted, what couldn't be counted," said Dearing.

He said some counties were discarding ballots for reasons that others did not, such as a voter signing the envelope in the wrong place. Under the new guidelines, such ballots would be accepted.

The state also created an online portal where voters were able to apply for an absentee ballot, track its progress and be alerted of potential problems. That helped cut rejections dramatically, to about 2,500 votes in November.

"Not waiting until the last day"

Dearing said something else added to the decline. He saw a monumental shift in voter behavior this year, as though all those warnings and news stories about tossed ballots and postal delays really sunk in.

"For the first time, voters were not waiting until the last day to mail these things. They were all mailing them weeks ahead of time," he said.

Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute and a former Colorado election official, saw another silver lining. She said the fact that so many ballots were rejected in the primaries helped voters learn how to do it right. Many of them were first-time absentee voters, in large part because of the pandemic.

"It's a teachable moment, right," she said. "You get your ballot rejected, then you're probably not going to make that mistake again."

Ironically, some election officials think President Trump's repeated attacks on mail-in voting as insecure also helped, by keeping the issue front and center. Voters heard over and over again how important it was to follow the rules.

McReynolds hopes that states learn from this year's experiences and find ways to make mail voting easier and more problem-free. She said there were many good examples of states educating their voters about the process and potential pitfalls. Hawaii, for one, sent a card to every voter letting them know that election officials would use their signatures to validate mail-in ballots and giving voters a chance to update the one on record. Other states extended ballot receipt deadlines and gave voters more time to cure their ballots, sometimes as the result of litigation.

But initial signs are not encouraging. Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere — citing Trump's baseless claims that mail-in voting leads to widespread fraud — are already talking about ways to restrict absentee voting.If only, they say, to restore voter confidence in the system.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.