With a record number of voters set to cast their ballots by mail in this year’s election, concern is growing that unintentional voter errors on absentee ballot envelopes may result in the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters.
Thirty-one states use signature verification to confirm the identity of mail voters. Voters in those states are required to sign the outer ballot envelope to establish eligibility. Election officials then compare that signature to a voter’s signature on file, which was obtained during registration, at the DMV, or from an absentee ballot application. If a voter’s signature is missing, or if it doesn’t match their signature on file, the ballot is rejected because the voter’s eligibility cannot be confirmed.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Many states now have systems in place to notify voters if their ballot is at risk and offer them the opportunity to “cure,” or fix, the disqualifying issues by submitting additional information. Ballot curing does not change anything on the ballot itself; it allows a voter to prove their eligibility to an election official.
Without ballot curing, voter error can effectively result in disenfranchisement. BPC’s Task Force on Elections recommends that all states establish systems for notifying voters about verification issues with their ballots and offering them the opportunity to fix those problems.
According to the Election Assistance Commission, non-matching or missing signatures are among the most common reasons why mail-in ballots are rejected. In a normal election, hundreds or even thousands of ballots can be discarded over issues that could have been resolved if the proper curing procedures had been in place.
This is not a normal election. While 24% of ballots in 2016 were cast absentee, BPC estimates that absentee votes will comprise more than 50% of the national vote totals for the 2020 general election. Record numbers of mail-in ballots—including a significant number from first time absentee voters, who are more prone to make mistakes when filling out mail-in ballots—will almost certainly mean that a record number of ballots could be at-risk for rejection due to voter verification issues.
We are already seeing ominous ballot rejection issues in the general election. South Carolina and Wisconsin have already rejected more than 1,500 ballots each due to voter verification issues. When all is said and done, it’s entirely possible that hundreds of thousands of votes in this election will be disqualified because of “voter errors.”
Additionally, there are significant racial disparities in the rates at which absentee ballots are rejected. Right now in North Carolina, ballots cast by Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American voters are being rejected at 3-5 times the rate of those cast by white voters. And although the specific rates vary between jurisdictions, similar trends in past elections have been documented in a number of other states. The reasons for these disparities are yet unclear; however, their reality—and their undemocratic and disenfranchising implications—are not.
Some states anticipated the verification issues in this election and made the necessary policy changes. Ahead of this election cycle, 12 states established or expanded ballot curing procedures:
- New laws passed in Virginia, Michigan, and New Mexico establish ballot curing procedures for the 2020 general election
- The secretaries of state in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Maine issued guidance that created ballot curing processes
- The governors of Kentucky, New Jersey, and New York issued executive orders that expanded ballot curing procedures
- North Carolina, North Dakota, and Indiana each established ballot curing systems following court orders to provide “due process” for voters before discarding their ballots
However, 20 states do not offer ballot curing despite the predictable surge in absentee ballots and verification issues. Voters in these states remain needlessly at risk of effective disenfranchisement.
The unique nature of the problems faced in the 2020 general election cycle will offer state and local election officials a rare opportunity to learn from experience on how best to administer absentee and by-mail voting in future elections. One lesson is already clear: ballot curing is a necessary aspect of an effective absentee voting system.