Many Americans are not familiar with how elections are conducted. And in recent years, providers of false claims have taken advantage of that lack of knowledge to cast doubt on certain aspects of the voting process.
In response, the NPR voting team offers a series of explanations on some of these election issues. This is the first. You can find all our stories here.
During major US elections, hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots are typically discarded and not counted. In 2020, for example, more than 560,000 the ballots were rejected (that’s almost 1% of the total).
Experts say ballot rejections are largely the result of relatively minor voter errors, often associated with security measures designed to verify a voter’s identity.
that’s why about half of the states have a process in place to help voters correct their mail-in ballots if they make a mistake. It is known as ballot curing.
Tova Wang, a democracy fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, says the 20 or so states without a curation process leave their voters without much recourse if there is a problem with their ballot.
“Someone who is an absolutely legitimate voter will not have their vote counted so it’s usually just a technical error,” she says.
José Altamirano, a Harvard Kennedy School policy graduate student, says that states that do have a process, however, have significantly lower rates of rejected mail-in ballots.
“Pretty consistently data sample that a certain number of voters would not have their absentee or mail-in ballots counted if it weren’t for the ballot cure,” he says.
In general, Altamirano says, states with a more accessible curation process, ballot tracking and ballot delivery policies tend to reject a lower percentage of ballots each election. But “if the state you live in has a stricter set of hoops to jump through to cast your vote, your vote is more likely to be rejected,” he says.
Republican lawmakers, who have been pushing for stricter rules for mail-in ballots across the country, say these restrictions prevent fraud, though documented cases of voter fraud remain extremely rare.
Why are ballots rejected?
Voters make mistakes. Ballots are often not returned by the state-mandated deadline. But Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for Common Cause, says many voters also get confused by the requirements of a mail-in ballot.
Depending on where you live, your state may require you to provide a matching signature on file, voter identification information such as a driver’s license, or a date.
She says that all of these “little checks” are opportunities for human error.
Plus, Albert says, voting at home means you’re on your own, for the most part.
“You don’t have a poll worker there who can answer any questions you have or direct you to anyone else who can help you,” she says. “You are alone at your kitchen table.”
Sometimes, Albert says, voters miss the field altogether to provide their identifying information or their signature. Other times, election officials have a hard time matching ID numbers or signatures to what’s in their system.
Phil Keisling, president of the National Institute for Home Voting and a former Oregon secretary of state, says this happens primarily because “voter signatures change” over time.
“They could have signed years ago when they were young, they changed their signature, they could have had a health problem,” he says.
There is also a wide variety in how to find out if your ballot was rejected.
Many states allow you track your ballot with an online portal that shows you when your ballot is received and then processed. These sites will often tell you if your ballot is rejected. Sometimes it will list a reason why.
But for the most part, local election officials contact voters directly if their ballot has been rejected. This could be a letter or a call. Or in some cases, as in Coloradolocal officials could have a text message program to alert voters.
Some voters don’t have access to landlines, don’t check their mail often, or simply don’t have constant access to the Internet.
That’s why, says Harvard’s Altamirano, how you find out there’s a problem with your ballot depends on who your local clerk is and where you live. He says some officials simply look up a number, mailing address or email address on file and send a notice that way, without checking to see if the contact information is up to date.
“While in some other counties, their local election officials went to great lengths to communicate with voters, including trying to find them on social media to get in touch with them,” Altamirano recalls.
Common Cause’s Albert says it also depends on what your state allows local officials to do when trying to contact voters.
“Some of that is laid out in state law,” Albert says, “and some legislatures aren’t really interested in giving election officials more leeway to reach those voters.”
Timeline to fix a ticket
If you live in a state that has a ballot cure process, how long you have depends on where you live.
Some states set a strict deadline tied to Election Day. Therefore, if you turn in your ballot close to Election Day, it is unlikely that you will be able to correct your ballot in time.
Other states give you a day or two after Election Day to correct your ballot; others give voters much more time. For example, the state of Washington gives voters up to 21 days after election day to fix a signature if there are problems.
Depending on where you live, you may need to submit a completely new ballot or submit some kind of statement or affidavit to let officials know the ballot was in fact yours.
who you are also matters
One notable factor, experts say, affecting ballot rejection has to do with who you are.
Harvard’s Wang says several studies have found a disproportionate impact when it comes to rejection of mail-in ballots.
“People of color and youth are more likely to have their ballots rejected than others,” she says. “And particularly for these groups who are already marginalized in the process in many ways, it’s very important that they be given the opportunity to have their votes counted.”
Even in states with lower ballot rejection rates, non-English speakers are also more like have their ballots rejected, compared to other voters.