A record-breaking 64 million Americans cast their ballot by mail this year. Mail voting has been around in some form since the Civil War, but this election is many Americans’ first introduction. Accordingly, hearing stories about some mail ballots being discarded for signature mismatches or other voter errors might be disconcerting. Thankfully, many states have a little-known procedure—called ballot curing—in place that allows eligible voters to fix problems on their mail ballot and make sure their voice is heard.
The majority of states rely on a process called signature verification to confirm the identity of mail voters. Voters in these states are required to sign their outer ballot envelope to establish their eligibility. Election officials then compare that signature to the voter’s signature on file, which is collected either during voter registration or some other transaction with the state.
If a voter’s signature is missing on the outer ballot envelope, or if it does not match their signature on file, the ballot can be rejected because the voter’s eligibility cannot be confirmed.
To make sure all eligible voters have their voices heard, many states rely on ballot curing to give voters a chance to fix—or “cure”—problems on their ballot envelope before their ballot is discarded. Importantly, voters aren’t changing their choices on the ballot itself.
In many states that allow ballot curing, election officials contact the voter directly by email, phone, or in some cases by mail if a ballot needs a cure. Turnaround times are short, and voters must provide alternative information or a new signature to verify their ballot’s eligibility.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 18 states have standing laws that require election officials to contact voters if their mail ballot has an error, but more have implemented ballot curing on a temporary basis for the 2020 presidential election. Other states without statutory provisions in place also perform ballot curing at the local level at the discretion of election officials.
States vary widely on what disqualifying issues can and cannot be cured, and local election officials often decide themselves on how to implement curing requirements with minimal state guidance.
In some states, voters can cure ballots that have either a mismatching or missing signature; in others, voters can only fix ballots with a mismatching—but not missing—signature. In select states that require witness signatures on absentee ballots, voters can cure misplaced or missing witness signatures in addition to their own. Additional disqualifying issues that voters can cure in some areas include missing Social Security numbers, unsealed envelopes that meet certain requirements, and problems with ballot statements.
In addition to state by state variation in what is covered under ballot curing procedures, deadlines for how quickly officials must contact voters, as well as for how long and in what ways voters can prove their eligibility, vary by state and locality.
The inconsistent use of ballot curing within states is already facing legal pushback this election season. On November 3, Republican litigants filed a lawsuit against Montgomery County, PA, for its use of ballot curing. The lawsuit alleges that because not all counties in Pennsylvania are contacting voters about ballot errors, the uneven use of ballot curing across the state violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Curing is a critical stopgap against unnecessary ballot rejection. However, it alone is not a complete solution, as some disqualifying voter errors—such as forgetting to include a secrecy envelope—cannot be fixed under existing ballot curing procedures.