Voting, Ballot Rejection, and Electoral Integrity in the 2020 Election

, Kendall Science Fellow | September 29, 2020, 3:52 pm EDT
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For a variety of reasons, ballots can be or rejected or “spoiled” if they are not filled out correctly or if verification protocols are not followed. This year, there is a great deal of concern over the surge of mail ballots that have been requested as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are observing key counties in the United States  as the election unfolds, as reported in a previous analysis.

Here we evaluate patterns of mail ballot use and observed 2016 ballot rejection rates across these counties. Our goal is to identify particular counties to watch as Election Night nears. We also examine ballot returns in North Carolina, where voters have already begun voting by mail. We then review and summarize best practices that election officials and voters can use to make sure that every ballot counts this November.

According to research from the MIT Election Lab, the most common reasons that local election officials reject mail ballots are due to arrival after official deadlines or problems with signature verification on return envelopes.

Most states have expanded vote-by-mail options for November. State election law largely determines the use of vote-by-mail across selected counties, with every active eligible voter being sent a ballot in California and Colorado this year, and most Arizona voters being included on the state’s Permanent Early Voter List. Alternatively, states like North Carolina may have more experience with early in-person voting and traditionally place more restrictions on vote-by-mail. In the case of Pennsylvania, the state just recently expanded voting options beyond Election Day voting. As a result, we see a lot of variation in expected vote-by-mail usage across states and counties this November.

Figure 1. Percentages of 2016 Ballots Rejected (log scale) and 2020 Mail Ballot Requests Sources: https://www.eac.gov/research-and-data/2016-election-administration-voting-survey; https://electproject.github.io/Early-Vote-2020G/index.html

Comparing the 2020 ballot requests that have already been recorded as of early September with mail ballot rejection rates from 2016 shows that states with a history of high vote-by-mail processing have lower rejection rates on average. In Cobb, Dekalb and Fulton counties in Georgia, Georgia, Orange and Durham counties in North Carolina, and Philadelphia and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania, voters were far more likely to have their ballots rejected in 2016. All these counties are experiencing surges in vote-by-mail requests this year, and as of now, Pennsylvania counties will not start processing mail ballots until Election Day.

Historically, statewide rejection rates have been highly correlated across elections, but November will test the capacity of many systems. Over half a million ballots,  a 40% increase over 2016, were rejected in this year’s primaries in 30 states, according to a study by NPR. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, 37,119 and 23,196 ballots were rejected, respectively, which is close to the number of votes that President Trump won those states by in 2016.

The cost of ballot rejection is not born equally by all voters in all states. As Daniel Smith and colleagues have shown, younger, Black, and Latino voters in Florida have ballots rejected at higher rates, and those disparities increased during the 2020 primaries. Overall, our selection of key 2020 election counties also exhibits less ballot rejection  in  counties with more white voters. Some of this bias is likely attributable to inferior and arbitrary state ballot verification practices.

Figure 2. Percentage of 2016 Ballots Rejected (log scale) as a Function of the Percent White Citizen Voting Age Population. Sources: https://www.census.gov/data/datasets/2016/dec/rdo/2012-2016-CVAP.html;https://www.eac.gov/research-and-data/2016-election-administration-voting-survey

Best practices in election administration matter, and fully institutionalizing vote-by-mail across all states could reduce socioeconomic and racial disparities in voting and improve the accuracy of election results. In the universal vote-by-mail state of Colorado, rejection rates were not only lower on average in 2016, there also does not appear to be a correlation between the racial composition of counties and rejection rates. Adam Bonica, Jacob Grumbach, Charlotte Hill and Hakeem Jefferson actually found that when Colorado moved to universal vote-by-mail, turnout for low-propensity voters, including younger voters and voters of color increased substantially.

Inferior practices include not providing equitably located voting places and machines, ill-equipped polling workers, and lack of quality control in processing materials, including mail ballots. For example, in Ohio, voters were required to fill out applications to vote by mail, yet another hurdle that many states imposed on voters. In Cuyahoga County, OH, tens of thousands of those applications are not valid because voters didn’t enter their birthday as required, or some other error, requiring county officials to try to correct them in time to send out a ballot. To overcome these and other barriers, Battle for Democracy Fund is on the ground in Ohio and Wisconsin, with over 1000 volunteers to make sure that everyone who wants to vote gets to vote, and that every ballot cast gets counted. As Executive Director/Lead Organizer of Greater Cleveland Congregations Keisha Krumm explains, “Tracking every vote with detailed care is the only way we’ll know if this is happening.” Similar groups are working across multiple swing states.

Over a million votes have already been cast in the 2020 election, including a quarter million in North Carolina, where voters began receiving mail ballots in early September. While there are still many counties where no ballots have been rejected and reporting is incomplete, ballots are already being rejected at a higher rate in counties with a larger proportion of Black residents, similar to the 2016 pattern.

Figure 3. As of late-September, early ballots returned in North Carolina are being rejected at a higher rate (log scale) in counties with larger Black populations. Sources: North Carolina Demographer https://www.ncdemography.org/2019/12/05/2018-county-population-estimates-race-ethnicity/ U.S. Elections Project 2020 General Election Early Vote Statistics https://electproject.github.io/Early-Vote-2020G/index.html

These results could change. The correlation between 2016 and current 2020 rejection rates is low (.15), and North Carolina voters should be notified and have a chance to cure rejected ballots before Election Day. But this is an early warning that Black and Brown voters need to ensure that their votes are counted.

As Alejandra Tres of Battle for Democracy Fund explains, “Democracy shouldn’t be a labyrinth, but we are doing everything we can, engaging in intensive support efforts for voters to make sure they understand and follow steps to protect their right to vote.” We clearly need more democratic accountability in the electoral process, and the public can play an important role. You can help provide that accountability by encouraging officials to support established best practices, and in every state, voters, organizers, and officials can take the following actions to protect more equitable democracy:

  1. Make sure your voter registration is up to date. In many states you can do this online in a manner of minutes. In other states you need to request and mail in updates.
  2. Contact your county election office and make sure they have your updated information (email, cell phone) in case they need to contact you about your ballot.
  3. If voting by mail, check the signature that you have on file. Mail voters need to sign, not print, their name on the ballot envelope when they receive their ballots.
  4. Complete and return mail ballots as soon as possible to ensure time for corrections.
  5. Check with local officials to determine where polling places are located, and if ballot drop boxes and early in-person voting are available.
  6. Voters in North Carolina and many other states can use the Colorado-based Ballottrax system or other applications to track their ballots online, which is like tracking a package from an online purchase.
  7. Mail voters need to know that their signatures will be compared to a database for verification. Public outreach to educate voters on the process is critical.
  8. Local election officials should be required to publish their verification process.
  9. No voter’s signature should be rejected at the discretion of a single individual. Multi-tier verification processes ensure that multiple officials must sign off on rejecting a challenged ballot.
  10. Election officials should be required to notify voters if their ballot is challenged and give them an opportunity to correct or cure their ballot.

Millions of people will be voting by mail for the first time in the next few weeks. Many will not know that they need to sign their envelope, or that the consistency of their signature is critical. Together we can help our neighbors understand how to vote safely and securely, and hold our election officials accountable.

Cindy Shebley

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