Why Rejected Ballots Could Be A Big Problem In 2020

As many states have changed their laws to encourage the use of mail voting during the pandemic, one big problem has become apparent: the number of mail ballots that are rejected.

Rejected absentee ballots, most of which are cast by mail, have long been an issue, but a manageable one. According to the Election Administration and Voting Survey, less than 1 percent of the 33.4 million absentee ballots submitted in the 2016 general election across the 50 states and Washington, D.C., were rejected.1 This year, though, rejection rates could be much higher because so many people are voting by mail for the first time and may not know the rules. According to research by David Cottrell, Michael C. Herron and Daniel A. Smith, voters without experience voting by mail are up to three times more likely to have their ballots rejected.

And even if the absentee-ballot rejection rate turns out to be as low as 2016’s, there will simply be a lot more absentee voting this year, and 1 percent of a big number is still pretty big. According to an analysis by NPR, more than 550,000 absentee ballots were returned but not counted in this year’s presidential primaries — and that number is almost certainly an undercount, considering that data was available in only 30 states. At the very least, that far outstrips the 318,709 absentee ballots that were rejected across the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in the much higher-turnout 2016 general election.

“The risk has always been there,” Charles Stewart III, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data and Science Lab, told FiveThirtyEight. “What’s different this time is that states that don’t have histories of large numbers of mail ballots now are getting a large number of mail ballots. And rejection rates for many of those states, which flew under the radar when there was a small number of ballots, are now being highlighted.”

Mail ballots can be rejected for a number of reasons, but election administration experts told FiveThirtyEight there are two big reasons. The most common reason is that they arrive late. Many states have deadlines by which mail ballots must be received, as opposed to postmarked, which means unless you drop off your ballot in person, you’re trusting the postal service to deliver your ballot in time for it to be counted (so if you’re putting your ballot in the mail, be sure to do so early).

The second most common reason a ballot is rejected is that it is missing a required signature; people who vote absentee are required to sign their ballot or ballot envelope, and some states even require a witness signature as well. Ballots can also be rejected if the signature on them does not match the signature the voter has on file. This is a major gripe of voting-rights advocates, who point out that the decision of whether a signature is close enough to the one on file can be very subjective (while some states have detailed guidelines for when a signature should count, others don’t, and election workers conducting signature verification are often not well trained). And according to Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser with the Democracy Fund, most odd-looking signatures do not represent voter fraud, just the correct voter signing their name under unusual circumstances. “When I worked [as an election official] in Maricopa County, I never had a voter say it wasn’t them,” Patrick said. “They would say their arm was in a cast, or ‘I recently had a stroke,’ or my favorite was, ‘My gosh, I signed it on the dashboard of my car when I was driving down the 202!’”

There are also some more esoteric reasons why mail ballots get rejected. For example, in Pennsylvania, “naked ballots” — those not enclosed in the required secrecy envelope — are automatically tossed. Or “a couple might put the wrong person’s ballot in the wrong envelope,” said Herron, one of the political scientists who authored the study on rejected mail ballots. “But those are rare,” he stressed.

Mail-ballot rejections don’t disenfranchise all voters equally, though. Voters of color and young voters, who also tend to have less experience voting by mail, are more likely to have their votes go uncounted. In North Carolina, Black voters’ mail ballots are already being rejected at a higher rate than white voters’ ballots. A similar trend was identified in Florida and Georgia in the 2018 midterms. And in Florida in 2016 and 2018, voters age 21 and younger had a rejection rate more than eight times greater than voters over age 65.

It’s possible, though, that the problem of rejected mail ballots is overstated. People often find themselves unable to vote in in-person elections as well — just in ways that are harder to measure. For example, some people may want to vote but lack the proper identification to do so; others may not be able to find their polling place on Election Day. And even among people who do make it to the polls, some may be deterred by long lines, and others may be turned away because of problems with their voter registration (e.g., it was out of date, or the voter was purged from the rolls). Stewart’s Survey of the Performance of American Elections estimates that about 955,000 votes were “lost” in one of these four ways in the 2016 general election.

Lots of in-person votes are “rejected” too

Estimated number of in-person votes that were not cast or counted for various reasons in the 2016 general election

Reason Lost Votes
Registration problems 300,000
Long lines 247,000
Lack of ID 233,000
Couldn’t find polling place 175,000
Total 955,000

Source: Survey of the Performance of American Elections

So for all the attention afforded rejected mail ballots, people probably don’t talk enough about the perennial problem of lost in-person votes. But with so many more people voting by mail this year, the question becomes which method disenfranchises more voters — in-person voting or mail voting?

Herron said he is more concerned about mail ballots getting rejected this year than he is about in-person votes getting “rejected” in a normal year. “What’s the biggest problem? We don’t really know.” But, he added, “my intuition is that the magnitude of late ballots is much greater.”

Stewart agreed: “I think that the incremental risk of voting by mail is greater than voting in person.” In addition to the rate of absentee-ballot rejections being higher than the rate of lost in-person votes, Stewart’s research has found that more mail ballots than in-person ones are tossed out in the actual tabulation stage. “The story there is a simple one,” said Stewart. “Mistakes that are getting caught in a precinct” — such as a person voting for too many candidates, or making a stray mark on the ballot that might invalidate the whole thing — “are not going to be caught in vote-by-mail.” That’s because ballot scanners will typically spit back out an in-person ballot that is marked incorrectly, and the voter will be given a chance to try again with a fresh ballot. Mail voters do not have that luxury.

So mail-ballot rejections could be a bigger problem than in-person “rejections” this year; at the very least, they will certainly be a bigger problem than they’ve been in the past. However, the good news is that election officials are aware that increased mail voting could potentially disenfranchise more voters, and some are addressing the problem. Eight states, for instance, have switched from a receipt deadline for mail ballots to a postmark deadline, ensuring that most ballots put in the mail by the deadline will not be rejected for being late. The vast majority of states are also giving voters the option to drop off their mail ballots in person via secure drop boxes. In addition, Patrick said that many mail ballots these days are trackable, so it’s possible to prove whether a ballot was put in the mail on time.

Some states are also taking a less strict approach to signature verification: Pennsylvania, for instance, has told counties that ballots cannot be rejected based on an apparent signature mismatch alone. And according to data collected by the National Vote at Home Institute and shared with FiveThirtyEight, 25 states now have procedures in place to notify voters of problems with their absentee ballots and give them a chance to fix, or “cure,” them.

As a result of these changes and more, Patrick said she’s optimistic that absentee-ballot rejection rates will be relatively low this fall. “Many states with high rejection rates in the primary have adopted best practices for the general,” including clearer instructions and better envelope designs, which tests show lowers the number of voters who forget to sign them, she said. “Also the fact that so many voters are acting early, both in terms of requesting their ballot and returning it,” Patrick added. “That all gives me hope.” Indeed, according to data collected by political scientist Michael McDonald, almost 10 million ballots have already been returned nationwide.

But other experts aren’t sure whether rejection rates will be higher or lower this year. “That’s the big question,” Herron said, pointing out that the influx of first-time mail voters into the electorate this year could cancel out the benefits of states’ changes to election administration. “How strong are those compared to the experience effect? We don’t know the answer,” he said. And in addition to voter inexperience and those administrative changes, there’s a third factor to consider: slower mail delivery this year. In conclusion, Herron said, “I don’t think anyone can put a number on it to say that the effect of these three is x.”