One Election Surprise: Fewer Early Ballots Being Rejected Than Expected

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WASHINGTON — With absentee ballots flooding election offices nationwide, the officials processing them are tentatively reporting some surprising news: The share of ballots being rejected because of flawed signatures and other errors appears lower — sometimes much lower — than in the past.

Should that trend hold, it could prove significant in an election in which the bulk of absentee voters has been Democratic, and Republicans have fought furiously, in court and on the stump, to discard mail ballots as fraudulent.

In Fulton County, Ga., home to Atlanta, just 278 of the first 60,000-odd ballots processed had been held back. In Minneapolis, Hennepin County officials last week had rejected only 2,080 of 325,000 ballots — and sent replacement ballots to all of those voters. In Burlington, Iowa, the number of rejected ballots on Monday was 28 of 12,310. And of 474,000 absentee ballots received in Kentucky, barely 1,300 rejects remain uncorrected by voters, compared to more than 15,000 during the state’s presidential primary in June.

The number of rejections could fall further. In those jurisdictions and many others, voters are notified of errors on ballots and can correct their mistakes, or vote in person instead.

There is no shortage of caveats to those and other upbeat reports from state and local election officials, which are far from comprehensive. In some states, including battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, regulations prevent early processing of millions of mail ballots, and it is impossible to know how many will be turned down.

Postal Service delays mean some — perhaps many — ballots will arrive in election offices too late to be counted. In at least a few states, including Florida and North Carolina, absentee ballots cast by people of color and young people are being rejected at rates far higher than the average. And even a low rejection rate can have enormous import, given the torrent of absentee votes cast this year.

Still, some experts on election administration say they are heartened by the reports they have received to date. About 319,000 mail ballots were disqualified in the 2016 general election, but according to a survey by National Public Radio, that ballooned to more than 550,000 rejections in this year’s primary elections, as voters new to absentee ballots stumbled over their often-confusing requirements.

Many experts feared that rejection rates would mushroom even more as mail voting reached new highs this fall. Instead, it appears that many voters have risen to the challenge.

“Historically, you’ve seen about 1 percent of ballots get bounced for one reason or another, mostly because of lateness,” said Nate Persily, a Stanford University professor of law and an expert on election administration. “But people are more attuned to the deadline this year, and voters are more aware of the criteria for casting absentee ballots.

“You’re going to have 80 million absentee ballots cast, and hundreds of thousands may have problems. But 99 percent or more of them will count.”

Should the early indications prove true, there will be no single explanation for the low number of rejections. As election officials tell it, a confluence of changes has made it easier for people to vote by mail since last spring, when many states were unprepared for the wave of mail ballots cast by people fearful of voting in person during a pandemic.

Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

For one thing, some states have rolled back confusing requirements. Minnesota no longer requires that absentee ballots be witnessed, acceding to a court ruling that the mandate was not justified during a pandemic. In Kentucky, technological advances that have made it possible to track mail ballots enabled state officials to relax longstanding provisions, such as the requirement for multiple signatures, that were a major cause of past rejections.

“We’ve added so many layers of security to the system that redundancies built in in the ’60s and ’70s, we don’t need any more,” Jared Dearing, the director of the Kentucky Elections Commissions, said last week. Even those voters whose ballots are rejected, he said, are automatically notified by email within an hour.

Election officials also say many voters appear more motivated to cast ballots this year, and more attentive to instructions on mail voting that have flooded newspapers, television and the internet. Changes in the design of ballots also have been a factor: On the advice of experts, for example, election officials in Rochester Hills, Mich., made the spot on ballots where voters are supposed to enter contact information easier to find. More are now doing that, making it easier to notify voters of problems with their ballots.

It is not only voters who are more aware of the potential pitfalls in voting by mail. Voting officials also have come to recognize that a high rejection rate could have real-world consequences in a close election.

“Jurisdictions are now very sensitive to the reasons for disqualifying absentee ballots,” Dr. Persily said. “When they were processing very few of them, those reasons might not have appeared significant. But now that cavalier enforcement of the rules led to tens of thousands of ballots being disqualified, they’re more likely to provide strict and consistent application of those guidelines.”

Indeed, many election officials are going the extra mile to accommodate voters. In Nashville’s Davidson County, election workers used pink highlighters to underscore often-overlooked signature lines on the roughly 37,000 absentee ballots they have mailed to voters. As of last week, officials had flagged only 11 ballots that lacked proper signatures, said Jeff Roberts, the county elections director.

If the rate of disqualified ballots has unquestionably fallen in some jurisdictions, one leading expert on mail voting, Daniel A. Smith of the University of Florida, offers a completely different explanation as to why.

In Florida, where 1.3 percent of mail ballots were thrown out in 2018, the rejection rate on Monday was a bare 0.3 percent. But “it’s not that we’re having fewer ballots rejected,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s that we’re having a higher rate of ballots being cured” — that is, corrected and made eligible for counting.

That is especially true in battleground states like Florida and Georgia. In both states, armies of workers for political parties, candidates and advocacy groups are pelting voters whose ballots were rejected with telephone calls and emails urging them to fix their mistakes. In Florida, where some 32,000 ballots were rejected in 2018, only 14,072 had been tossed out as of Monday, two-thirds of those because signatures were missing.

“In every county, we’re having massive efforts on the ground” to fix ballot mistakes, Mr. Smith said. “And we have never seen anything like that in any previous election.”

In some other states, voters who make mistakes are simply out of luck. Only 18 states require that voters be notified if their ballot has a missing signature or a signature discrepancy, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Texas and Alaska, state officials went to court this year to preserve their right to throw out ballots without telling voters — and won both cases.

Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Even the good news of fewer rejections masks persistent problems with the few ballots that are disqualified, Mr. Smith said. In Florida, ballots cast by Black voters have been rejected at twice the rate of those cast by white voters. The Latino rejection rate is still higher. And the ballots of the youngest voters, between ages 18 and 23, are being rejected at a rate more than four times that of voters over age 65.

Similar racial and ethnic disparities also are occurring in another swing state, North Carolina, the advocacy group Democracy North Carolina reported on Monday.

The current low rates are destined to rise, Mr. Smith said, when deadlines for receiving mail ballots expire and election officials reject the thousands that arrive late.

That said, some experts believe that American voters deserve a pat on the back for their performance.

“If election officials and voters are able to vote by mail in such high numbers, yet see so few ballots rejected during a pandemic, that will have been one of the great accomplishments in American democracy,” said David J. Becker, the director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

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