Don’t let your mail-in ballot get thrown out

Make sure you follow all the directions on your absentee ballot TO THE LETTER.

Millions of voters — more than in any time in U.S. history —  are likely to vote absentee in the Nov. 3 election. But voters need to plan now how to vote correctly and make sure that unintentional errors don’t disqualify their votes.

Donald Trump has been trying to throw shade on voting by mail for months, even though Trump himself, his family members, Vice President Mike Pence, and many on the White House staff all vote absentee. He claims that mail-in voting is rigged, that foreign agents will intercept and fill out ballots, that there is widespread voter fraud, etc., etc.

All of this is nonsense, of course. Officials at “multiple federal agencies” reported that there was “no intelligence to suggest that foreign countries are working to undermine mail-in voting and no signs of any coordinated effort to commit widespread fraud through the vote-by-mail process,” according to an AP story.

As far as the GOP mythical boogeyman of voter fraud goes, fraud is extremely rare in both in-person and mail-in voting. The Electronic Registration Information Center found a mail-in ballot fraud rate of only 0.0025 percent in 2016 and 2018 in three vote-by-mails states.

Yet more than a half million absentee ballots were rejected in the 2020 primaries. All those people took the time to vote by mail, many because they wanted to avoid being possibly exposed to COVID-19. And all those people ended up being disenfranchised.

An analysis by NPR showed that more than 550,000 ballots were rejected in this year’s primaries alone. That’s a number far higher than the 318,728 ballots rejected in the 2016 general election. And predictions are that mail-in voting will account for twice as many votes than it did in 2016, when approximately one in four voters voted by mail. It’s a much bigger problem with absentee ballots than it is with in-person voters: “Only about one-hundredth of a percent of in-person ballots are rejected compared with about 1% of mail-in ballots,” said the NPR story.

The reasons for such rejections are varied:

  • Many ballots arrived too late to be counted, after the primary’s election day. Different states have different rules of when ballots must be postmarked and when they must arrive.
  • In some cases, signatures on the ballot didn’t “match” a signature on file, even if that signature is decades old from an original voter registration form. Although voters are supposed to be notified when that happens, giving them a chance to “cure” their vote, that notification comes in the mail and sometimes arrives too late to do anything about it.
  • Ballots didn’t have accompanying signatures from witnesses. Again, different states have different rules; some even require a notarized signature on the mailed-in envelope.

The stakes are high. As the NPR story said:

Even with limited data, the implications are considerable. NPR found that tens of thousands of ballots have been rejected in key battleground states, where the outcome in November — for the presidency, Congress and other elected positions — could be determined by a relatively small number of votes.

Many rejected absentee ballots came from those voting by mail for the first time. And the rejections were uneven across the board: In Florida, Black and Latinx voters’ ballots were twice as likely to be rejected as were ballots of white voters. Maybe that’s one reason that some Black and Latinx voters don’t trust mail-in voting. Nearly two-thirds of Latino and Black voters prefer to vote in person because “they believe their vote is more likely to be counted than if they vote by mail,” said a Politico story.

Nevertheless, if you choose to vote by mail, don’t let your ballot be thrown out. Whether you’ve voted absentee many times over the years or you’re one of those voting by mail for the first time, familiarize yourself with all of your state’s voting rules.

An excellent guide on how to vote by mail, and, more important, How to prevent your mail ballot from being rejected, was published recently by The Washington Post. It lists several possible red flags and offers some practical advice:

  • Request your ballot early. Some states (not all) are mailing absentee ballot applications to all voters. Some states have had mail-in voting for years. Election officials across the country are asking voters “to begin the process as soon as possible,” as the Post reported, to give voters plenty of time.
  • Mail your ballot early. The U.S. Postal Service usually says voters should allow a week for your ballot to arrive. With the widespread mail slowdowns all over the country, make that at least two weeks — or more. Even if it’s a postage-paid envelope, add a stamp. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has suggested that those envelopes won’t be counted as first-class mail, thus delaying them even more. Another option is to drop the absentee ballot in a ballot drop box, which gets emptied by election officials once a day. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia allow voters to deliver absentee ballots by hand.
  • Read the instructions on your ballot. Look, this isn’t like clicking a box with small type saying you agree to the rules on a website, which no one reads anyway. This is your vote. Do you need witness signatures, along with their addresses? “If you are confused about how to complete your ballot, contact your local election official, who is often the county or city clerk,” advised the Post story. Election officials have accurate information on local voting regulations; don’t believe everything you read about voting on social media, the Post story advised.
  • Learn about signature matching. “If a matching signature is required, sign your name while keeping in mind that election officials may be comparing it with an old signature. If you sign with your initials but your signature on file contains your full name, your ballot might not be counted,” the Post story said.
  • Don’t stain or tear your ballot or the envelope. It seems like a ridiculous reason to reject a ballot, but some states have rules dating back to the 1800s, when “a small alteration to a ballot could indicate that a voter was owed a payoff,” the Post said. And don’t use your own envelope; use the official one.
  • If you think you made a mistake, don’t try to fix it. A ballot with what might look like erasures is a red flag. It’s best to contact local election officials, get a new ballot, and start over.

Given the greater chance, however small that chance might be, that an absentee ballot will be rejected, don’t rule out voting in person, even in the midst of a pandemic. Most states (not all) offer early voting. Some professional sports teams are offering their arenas to be mega polling stations and house hundreds of socially distant voting machines.

So put on your mask and do your civic duty. As former President Barack Obama said at the Democratic National Convention, “Our democracy depends on it.”

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