Can the Ballots Thrown Out in the Primaries Be Saved in November? (Published 2020) – The New York Times

Larry Buchanan and Updated Sept. 23
These six states are among those trying to help, but there are still pitfalls for voters.
“Sign Here” symbols used on various ballot envelopes
Plumas County,
Calif.
Kentucky
Nebraska
North Carolina
Michigan
North Dakota
Alaska
Madera County,
Calif.
Maricopa County,
Arizona
Miami-Dade
County, Florida
Polk County,
Florida
Wisconsin
Kentucky
Virginia
Minnesota
West Virginia
Ohio
“Sign Here” symbols used
on various ballot envelopes
Plumas County,
Calif.
Kentucky
North Carolina
Madera County,
Calif.
Maricopa County,
Arizona
Polk County,
Florida
Wisconsin
Virginia
Ohio
Nebraska
Michigan
North Dakota
Alaska
Miami-Dade
County, Florida
Kentucky
Minnesota
West Virginia
With 60 million Americans potentially voting by mail this fall, even a small percentage of rejected ballots could result in more than one million votes being thrown out.
About 2 percent of mail ballots were rejected in this year’s primary elections, according to data collected from 24 states by Michael McDonald, a voter turnout expert at the University of Florida.
Mail ballots are rejected for two primary reasons: They don’t arrive in time, or they are missing a signature or other requirement to certify a voter’s identity. Some states are more demanding than others, so be sure to pay attention to all the instructions to make your vote count.
To reduce rejections, officials will accept ballots with certain types of mistakes.
Kentucky’s June presidential primary featured an unprecedented share of ballots cast by mail. Voter turnout surpassed 2016 levels, and no major problems with missing ballots or postal delays were reported.
But more than 32,000 Kentuckians — about 4 percent of mail-in voters — returned their ballots late or were tripped up by the state’s two-envelope system, and their votes weren’t counted.
Inner envelope
15,075 ballots rejected
47% of rejections
Because one or both signatures were missing
4,079 13%
Late
3,865 12%
Flap missing or detached
3,413 11%
Inner envelope not sealed
1,963 5%
No inner envelope
1,113 3%
No outer envelope
This
envelope
goes inside this one.
Outer
envelope
Inner envelope
15,075 ballots rejected
47% of rejections
Because one or both signatures were missing
4,079 13%
Late
3,865 12%
Flap missing or detached
3,413 11%
Inner envelope not sealed
1,963 5%
No inner envelope
1,113 3%
No outer envelope
Outer
envelope
Inner envelope
Outer
envelope
15,075 ballots rejected
47% of rejections
Rules
for Nov.
Because one or both signatures were missing
Accept if one signature
4,079 13%
Reject
Late
3,865 12%
Accept if
detached
Inner envelope flap missing or detached
3,413 11%
Accept
Inner envelope not sealed
1,963 5%
Reject
No inner envelope
1,113 3%
Accept
No outer envelope
State officials did not have time to design more user-friendly envelopes before the fall. Instead, they redesigned the instructions sent to voters, expanded voters’ ability to fix errors, and instructed local officials to accept ballots with certain types of mistakes.
Inner envelope
15,075 ballots rejected
47% of rejections
Rules for Nov.
Because one or both signatures were missing
Accept if one signature
4,079 13%
Reject
Late
3,865 12%
Flap missing or detached
Accept if detached
3,413 11%
Inner envelope not sealed
Accept
1,963 5%
No inner envelope
Reject
1,113 3%
No outer envelope
Accept
Outer
envelope
Inner envelope
15,075 ballots rejected
47% of rejections
Rules
for Nov.
Because one or both signatures were missing
Accept if one signature
4,079 13%
Late
Reject
3,865 12%
Accept if
detached
Flap missing or detached
3,413 11%
Inner envelope not sealed
Accept
1,963 5%
No inner envelope
Reject
1,113 3%
No outer envelope
Accept
Outer
envelope
The new regulations also provide additional help for voters filling out their envelopes: Every county will include highlighting on both the inner and outer envelopes where voters need to sign their names.
The state Supreme Court in Pennsylvania, another state with a two-envelope system, recently extended the deadline for voters to return their ballots and approved the use of ballot drop boxes. But the court also ruled that ballots that arrive without the inner envelope — so-called naked ballots — should be thrown out.
In a letter to state legislators, Lisa M. Deeley, a top elections official in Philadelphia, warned that without legislative action, the decision would lead to “electoral chaos” in November, with 30,000 to 40,000 ballots potentially thrown out in Philadelphia and 100,000 thrown out statewide.
“I hope you consider this letter as me being a canary in the coal mine,” Ms. Deeley wrote.
The state worked with a civic group to create a more straightforward envelope.
North Carolina began sending voters ballots for November on Sept. 4, the first state to do so. What voters received were ballots with a new design that had been planned before the pandemic to accommodate scaled-back witness requirements, simplify the process and reduce errors in filling them out.
Before
After
A streamlined layout and plainer language.
Some of the legal langauge is gone, headers address voters directly using action verbs, paragraphs are broken up by bullets, and side-by-side sections are now stacked and organized into steps for an easier flow.
A more prominent signature area.
With only one witness now required, voter and witness signature areas are more prominent. The “X” is inside of a box, instead of on a line, which can help voters see where they need to sign. Color is used only in the signature areas.
One final reminder.
A bulleted list of steps for voters is printed on the flap to try to catch any last-minute mistakes.
Before
After
A streamlined layout and plainer language.
Some of the legal langauge is gone, headers address voters directly using action verbs, paragraphs are broken up by bullets, and side-by-side sections are now stacked and organized into steps for an easier flow.
A more prominent signature area.
With only one witness now required, voter and witness signature areas are more prominent. The “X” is inside of a box, instead of on a line, which can help voters see where they need to sign. Color is used only in the signature areas.
One final reminder.
A bulleted list of steps for voters is printed on the flap to try to catch any last-minute mistakes.
Before
After
A streamlined layout and plainer language.
Some of the legal langauge is gone, headers address voters directly using action verbs, paragraphs are broken up by bullets, and side-by-side sections are now stacked and organized into steps for an easier flow.
 
A more prominent signature area.
With only one witness now required, voter and witness signature areas are more prominent. The “X” is inside of a box, instead of on a line, which can help voters see where they need to sign. Color is used only in the signature areas.
 
One final reminder.
A bulleted list of steps for voters is printed on the flap to try to catch any last-minute mistakes.
The state worked with local officials and with the Center for Civic Design, a nonprofit organization that promotes user-friendly designs for ballots, election websites, mail ballot envelopes and voter instructions.
Part of the center’s mission is to help smooth out “seemingly small barriers that can add up to a vote not cast.” When it comes to the design of ballot envelopes, said Whitney Quesenbery, the center’s executive director, the point is not to make them look pretty. “The goal is to make the envelopes arrive accurately and come back accurately,” she said.
In addition to clearer envelopes, North Carolina now has a system for voters to track their ballots online. As the result of a court ruling, if voters find their ballots have been rejected for a missing signature, they will now be able to fix, or “cure,” them. And as of Tuesday, election officials agreed that if a ballot envelope is missing witness information, the voter will also have the chance to fix that without having to start over with a new ballot.
Despite the new designs, some voters are still having problems, particularly with the witness section, where three pieces of information are required.
“We are learning as we go,” said Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Ballot envelopes will now feature bar codes and more user-friendly instructions.
Changes made to the mail ballots in Wisconsin were also informed by problems that arose during its presidential primary election, in April, when thousands of missing, delayed or un-postmarked ballots were reported.
In at least one town, envelopes listed the town’s name above the voter’s address, causing confusion on where the ballots should be sent. The envelopes also included “non-postal related” numbers that confused sorting machines, according to a report by the U.S.P.S. inspector general.
Town name was listed above voter address.
These extra numbers confused U.S.P.S. sorting machines.
Town name was listed above voter address.
These extra numbers confused U.S.P.S. sorting machines.
Since April, state and local election officials have coordinated with the Postal Service to make several changes, including the addition of bar codes that will allow clerks in most jurisdictions to track outgoing ballots and reissue any that may go missing.
Voters have also run into problems with the back-of-the-ballot envelope, where a form for them to certify their identity is printed. It contains several paragraphs of legal language and multiple fields where voters must supply signatures and witness information. In the April elections, more than half of all the rejected ballots were turned down because of mistakes in filling out this form.
Back of ballot return envelope
14,042 ballots rejected
Because of issues with this voter certification section
8,185
Late
14,042
ballots rejected
8,185
Because of issues with the voter certification
Late
Amber McReynolds, the chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute, said a lot of states still had “very antiquated” and long oaths for voters to sign.
“Making the legal language simpler is something that I think is very important,” said Ms. McReynolds, whose organization advocates mail voting. “Election officials need to use more visual cues and instructional designs as opposed to super-wordy instructions.”
After the April primary, Wisconsin’s election commission sought to make changes to the certification form, many aspects of which are written into state law. But by early summer, officials decided they did not have enough time to revamp the form and test it sufficiently. On top of that, one million printings of the old certifications had already been sent to clerks.
The same form will be used again in November, but the state has redesigned the instructions it sends voters, adding bold numbers and icons to make them easier to follow.
Before
After
Before
After
“Every time you simplify the instructions, you make it easier for people to comply,” Ms. Quesenbery said.
Registered voters no longer need a witness, but the old envelopes remain.
The pandemic has led to dozens of lawsuits related to mail voting, including groups that want to restrict mail voting and those that want to expand it. In Minnesota, a court agreed with three groups promoting voting rights. As a result, the deadline for returning ballots has been extended, and registered voters will not have to provide the signature of a witness.
So ballot envelopes arriving in voters’ mailboxes may include a sticker or a large “X” crossing out a section that’s no longer required.
Highlights and “X”s
In addition to drawing an “X” through the witness section on applicable ballots, officials in St. Louis County, Minn., are highlighting important sections that voters sometimes miss.
In addition to drawing an “X” through the witness section on applicable ballots, officials in St. Louis County, Minn., are highlighting important sections that voters sometimes miss.
But the state’s most populous county is leaving the envelopes as they are. Officials in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, said they tried to cross out and cover the witness area of the ballots for their August state primary, but found that the time it took would create “unacceptable delays” in sending them this fall.
Instead, the county will rely on revised instructions to let registered voters know that they do not need a witness. Those that include a witness signature anyway will not be penalized. (Nonregistered voters can register and mail in a vote at the same time, but they must include a witness.)
Requiring a witness or a notary signature on a mail ballot is just one of the ways that states have tried to prevent fraud. But mail voting experts argue that the more requirements for certifying a voter’s identity, the more confused voters get, particularly those in historically disenfranchised communities.
“It doesn’t take many voters to get confused to be a real issue,” Ms. Quesenbery said. “And who gets the most confused? Voters who are at most risk. So it becomes a tacit form of voter suppression.”
The state did a quick redesign and will allow voters to fix mistakes.
Wendy R. Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U., is a voting rights expert who has testified before Congress and argued before courts on democracy issues.
When Ms. Weiser voted by mail in New York’s June primary, she knew that she was supposed to sign the ballot envelope, but it took her some time, because the design was so confusing.
“I see how I could have missed it,” she said. More than 8,300 other voters in Brooklyn did.
Old front for Brooklyn
Brooklyn Rejections
23% of all mail-in ballots were rejected.
900
Envelope not sealed
Old back for Brooklyn
8,300 ballots rejected
Because the envelope wasn’t signed
4,700
Ballot not in envelope
16,000
For various reasons including lateness and postmark issues
Brooklyn Rejections 23% of all mail-in ballots were rejected.
Old front for Brooklyn
Old back for Brooklyn
8,300 ballots rejected
Because the envelope wasn’t signed
4,700
Ballot not in envelope
900
Envelope not sealed
16,000
For various reasons including lateness and postmark issues
Brooklyn Rejections
23% of all mail-in ballots were rejected.
Old front for Brooklyn
Old back for Brooklyn
8,300 ballots rejected
Because the envelope wasn’t signed
4,700
Ballot not in envelope
900
Envelope
not sealed
16,000
For various reasons including lateness and postmark issues
In addition to reports of high ballot rejection rates, New York’s primary election was plagued by significant counting delays and ballots disputed over postmark issues. In response, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a series of bills and an executive order in late August making several changes to the way mail voting is conducted in the state.
After complaints that the instructions on ballot envelopes were confusing, one of the new requirements was that counties “adopt a uniform clarified envelope for absentee ballots.”
The state Board of Elections began a redesign with envelope templates from the Center for Civic Design, filling them in with language required by state law and customizing them for local jurisdictions. New York City counties, for example, include information in up to five different languages.
The city has not released images of the new envelopes, but print vendors will begin sending them out Wednesday.
Mr. Cuomo also signed a bill requiring election boards to notify voters if their ballot has certain issues that would cause it to be rejected and to allow them to fix the errors.
The biggest reason for rejections in the primaries won’t be a problem in November.
Washington State residents have been voting almost exclusively by mail since the legislature required it in 2011. In the 20 general and non-presidential primary elections held in the state since 2012, just 1.4 percent of ballots have been rejected on average.
But in the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries, that rate jumped to 4 percent, translating to roughly 90,000 ballots in this year’s March election.
Presidential
primaries
4% of ballots rejected
3%
2%
1%
2012
2013
2014
2015
2016
2017
2018
2019
2020
4% of ballots rejected
Presidential
primaries
3%
2%
1%
2012
2014
2016
2018
2020
The key difference is a state law that requires voters to declare a party affiliation — either Democrat or Republican — on their presidential primary ballot return envelopes, information that is then made available to the public for 60 days. Many voters resist or overlook the requirement, causing their ballots to be rejected.
Ballot return
envelope for the presidential primary
A party declaration is required in the primary …
Voters must choose the Democratic Party or Republican Party. Many voters resist or overlook the requirement, causing their ballots to be rejected. More than 60,000 were probably rejected for not doing this.
Ballot return
envelope for the general election
… but not in the general.
Voters only need to sign and date.
… but not in the general.
Voters only need to sign and date.
A party declaration is
required in the primary …
Voters must choose the Democratic Party or Republican Party. Many voters resist or overlook the requirement, causing their ballots to be rejected. More than 60,000 were probably rejected for not doing this.
Ballot return envelope
for the presidential primary
Ballot return envelope for the general election
A party declaration is required in the primary …
Voters must choose the Democratic Party or Republican Party. Many voters resist or overlook the requirement, causing their ballots to be rejected. More than 60,000 were probably rejected for not doing this.
Ballot return envelope
for the presidential primary
… but not in the general.
Voters only need to sign and date.
Ballot return envelope for the general election
Election officials have said the declaration is necessary because Washington voters do not declare a party preference when they register to vote. Placing the declarations on the outside of the envelopes helps them be sorted.
The requirement won’t be an issue in the general election this November. Still, even a one percent rejection rate in Washington State translates to more than 30,000 uncounted votes, primarily for the same reasons as in other states: a missing signature or late arrival.
Note: Envelope designs shown for states may vary by county or local jurisdiction.
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