Voting explainer: In many states, there's a process to fix an error with your ballot
Many Americans are unfamiliar with how elections are run. And in recent years, purveyors of false claims have taken advantage of that lack of knowledge to sow doubts about certain aspects of the voting process.
In response, NPR's voting team is offering a series of explainers on some of these election topics. This is the first. You can find all of our stories here.
During big U.S. elections, hundreds of thousands of mail ballots are typically thrown out and left uncounted. In 2020, for instance, more than 560,000 ballots were rejected (that's nearly 1% of the total).
Experts say ballot rejections are largely the result of relatively minor voter errors, often associated with security measures that are designed to verify a voter's identity.
That's why about half of states have a process in place to help voters fix their mail ballots if they do make a mistake. It's known as ballot curing.
Tova Wang, a democracy fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, says the roughly 20 states without a cure process leave their voters without much recourse if there is an issue with their ballot.
"Somebody who is an absolutely legitimate voter will have their vote not counted for what is usually just a technical error," she says.
Jose Altamirano, a policy graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School, says states that do have a process, however, have significantly lower rates of rejected mail ballots.
"Pretty consistently data shows that certain numbers of voters would not have their absentee or mail ballots counted if it weren't for ballot cure," he says.
In general, Altamirano says, states with a cure process, ballot tracking and more accessible ballot drop-off policies tend to reject a lower percentage of ballots each election. But "if the state you live in has a more stringent set of hoops to jump through to cast your ballot, the more likely it is that your ballot will be rejected," he says.
Republican lawmakers, who have been pushing for stricter rules for mail ballots across the country, say these restrictions prevent fraud, though documented cases of voter fraud remain exceedingly rare.
Why ballots get rejected
Voters make mistakes. Oftentimes ballots don't get returned by the deadline required by the state. But Sylvia Albert, the director of voting and elections at Common Cause, says many voters also get tripped by requirements on a mail ballot.
Depending on where you live, your state might require you to provide a signature that matches one on file, voter ID information such as a driver's license, or a date.
She says all these "little checks" are opportunities for human error.
Plus, Albert says, voting at home means you are on your own, for the most part.
"You don't have an election worker there who can answer any questions you have or direct you to anyone else who can help," she says. "You are just alone on your kitchen table."
Sometimes, Albert says, voters completely miss the field to provide their ID information or their signature. Other times, election officials have a hard time checking ID numbers or signatures against what's in their system.
Phil Keisling, chair of the National Vote at Home Institute and Oregon's former secretary of state, says mostly this happens because "voter signatures change" over time.
"They might have signed years ago when they were young, they changed their signature, they might have had a health problem," he says.
There's also a big variety in how you find out if your ballot was rejected.
Many states allow you to track your ballot with an online portal that shows you when your ballot is received and then processed. These sites will often also let you know if your ballot is rejected. Sometimes it will list a reason why.
But for the most part, voters are contacted directly by local election officials if their ballot has been rejected. This could be a letter or a call. Or in some cases, like in Colorado, local officials might have a texting program to alert voters.
Some voters don't have access to landlines, don't check their mail often, or simply don't have consistent access to the internet.
This is why, Harvard's Altamirano says, how you find out there is a problem with your ballot depends on who your local official is and where you live. He says some officials simply look for a number, mailing address or email address on file and send notice that way — without checking to see if that contact information is up to date.
"Whereas in some other counties their local election officials went above and beyond to reach out to voters — including trying to find them on social media in order to get in touch with them," Altamirano recalls.
Common Cause's Albert says it also depends what your state allows local officials to do when they are trying to contact voters.
"Some of that is set in state law," Albert says, "and some legislatures are not really interested in providing more leeway to election officials to reach out to those voters."
Timeline to fix a ballot
If you live in a state that does have a ballot cure process, how much time you have depends on where you live.
Some states set a hard deadline tied to Election Day. So, if you turn in your ballot close to Election Day, it's unlikely you will be able to cure your ballot in time.
Other states give you one or two days after Election Day to cure your ballot; others give voters much more time. For example, the state of Washington gives voters until 21 days after Election Day to fix a signature if there are issues.
Depending where you live, you might be required to either submit a whole new ballot, or send some sort of statement or affidavit letting officials know that the ballot was in fact yours.
Who you are also matters
One notable factor, experts say, that affects ballot rejection has to do with who you are.
Wang, of Harvard, says a number of studies have found a disproportionate impact when it comes to mail ballot rejections.
"People of color and young people are more likely to have their ballots rejected than others," she says. "And so particularly for these groups who are already marginalized in the process in many ways it's very important that they be given the opportunities to have their ballots counted."
Even in states with lower ballot rejection rates, non-English speakers are also more likely to have their ballots rejected, compared to other voters.
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