It was the nightmare scenario for the 2020 election: With so many more people than usual casting absentee votes, observers feared that a significant proportion of ballot papers would declined for improper practice. A studyFor example, it was shown that first-time voters who are less familiar with the rules of postal voting were up to three times more likely to be rejected at least 550,000 postal ballot papers were not counted during the primaries last spring and summer, which were heavily voted via email.
But these fears have not been fulfilled. According to FiveThirtyEight from state polling offices, not only have the rejection rates for postal votes not increased, but rejected ballots were actually less problematic than in 2016.
Of the 27 states and Washington, DC where we were able to get data, only 297,347 of 47,999,299 postal votes cast in the 2020 general election were rejected – a rejection rate of 0.6 percent. And in 20 of the 23 jurisdictions that provided data for the last one two The 2020 presidential rejection rate was lower than 2016. (Data is not yet available for the rest of the states, but will be published as part of the 2020 Election Administration and Voting Survey).
|Rejections of absences in 2016||2020 Absent rejections|
|Status||Raw number||rating||Raw number||rating||diff.|
|Rhode Island||– –||– –||184||0.1||– –|
|Virginia||– –||– –||5.082||0.2||– –|
|Kentucky||– –||– –||1,197||0.2||– –|
|Georgia||– –||– –||7.604||0.6||– –|
|Utah||– –||– –||13,725||0.9||– –|
For many states, the number of postal ballots rejected has proven to be an incredible success story. Massachusetts, for example, cut its rejection rate from a mediocre 3.3 percent in 2016 to a superb 0.6 percent in 2020 (as a reference, states have historically had rejection rates of up to 6 percent). Maryland rejected roughly the same number of postal ballot papers in 2020 (3,669) as it did in 2016 (3,672) – despite nine times as many postal ballots in total (1,528,327 versus 177,350). Four other states rejected fewer ballots in 2020 than in 2016, although the total number of postal votes cast had increased significantly.
What is behind this remarkable success? Election administration experts cite several factors, but one big factor was that voters submitted their postal votes early. This is important because, in a normal election, the main reason postal ballot papers don’t get counted is because they are late. In 2020, however, several states reported a sharp drop in the proportion of those absent after the deadline. In Delaware, for example, the percentage of late-arriving postal ballots fell from 1.3 percent in 2016 to 0.2 percent in 2020. In Maryland it fell from 1.3 percent to 0.1 percent. In Massachusetts it fell from 1.7 percent to 0.04 percent. According to data from all three states (plus Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Vermont), that decrease in late ballots was responsible for much of their overall declined ballot reduction.
One reason for this is obvious: the voters heeded the admonitions of the election officials to return their postal votes as early as possible. Ubiquitous media reminders and the satiety of reporting problems with the U.S. Postal Service likely helped too. But, by and large, states have also proactively changed their electoral policies to prevent ballot papers from being thrown because of delays. Several states, including Massachusetts, extended their deadlines to allow ballots to arrive after election day (provided they were properly postmarked). Michelle Tassinari, the director of the Commonwealth’s electoral department, told FiveThirtyEight that it was a big reason the Bay State was improving.
Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the Democracy Fund, also applauded states for giving voters the option to return their ballots other than sending them back (which, of course, can take several days). “These return options made all the difference to many ballot papers that didn’t come back late.” In fact, according to preliminary information from the Overview of the performance of American electionsForty-five percent of postal ballot papers were submitted personally in 2020, compared to 29 percent in 2016. This was largely due to improved access to ballot boxes. At least 38 states plus Washington, D.C., offered dropboxing in the 2020 general election, up from 13 before 2020. This was another secret to Massachusetts’ success, according to Tassinari. “We encouraged every city to have Dropboxes, and some communities even had multiple Dropboxes,” she said. “For example, Worcester City had them on all fire stations.”
Some states have also implemented reforms to speed up the USPS’s ability to process ballots. “More and more states were using intelligent mail barcodes [on their ballot envelopes] This enabled the postal service to know where the ballot papers were and to ensure they were processed on time, ”explained Patrick. Massachusetts was one of those states: electoral officials applied for 351 separate mailing permits for special bar-coded envelopes addressed to 351 town clerks across the Commonwealth – “a difficult, arduous process,” Tassinari said, but one of them paid off in the end . Instead of having to be hand stamped, the envelopes could be processed automatically, which would result in faster delivery, Tassinari explained.
Ballot delay wasn’t the only problem that improved in 2020. Some states have also cited the second most common reason for ballot paper rejections: voter mistakes such as missing or invalid signatures on the ballot envelope. For example, according to Amber McReynolds and Grace Beyer of the National Vote at Home Institute, 15 states and Washington, D.C., have given voters the opportunity to “heal” their postal votes or fix mistakes. (This is in addition to the 17 states that allowed ballot hardening before 2020.) State data suggests that this prevented thousands of ballots from being rejected. In Kentucky, which temporarily changed its electoral laws last year to allow ballot hardening, 2,933 ballots were healed, leaving only 1,197 rejected. In Georgia, a state that was previously undergoing a healing process, 2,777 ballots were healed, bringing the number of ballots that were ultimately rejected to 7,604.
McReynolds stressed, however, that not only states have changed their policies; Technological progress also made a big difference. “By 2020, only one state had a full nationwide voting system that could immediately alert voters to a problem. Now it’s six, ”she said. “And many other states have not put full tracking systems in place, but have posted the information on their websites for voters to look up.” Some of these systems have been incredibly quick and easy for voters, such as that of Colorado TXT2Cure program, who sent voters of mismatched ballot papers a text message with a link where they could upload a photo of their ID and sign a voter affidavit right on their smartphone.
In addition, both McReynolds and Patrick praised organizations like the Center for Civic Design for working with states to design more user-friendly ballots and envelopes. “Things like instructions for voters in clear text, an ‘X’ in the signature field so voters know where to sign – something as simple as that little ‘X’ lowers the rejection rate,” said Patrick. Whitney Quesenbery said the executive director of the CCD, 18 states plus Washington, D.C., last year passed its drafts or instructions either nationwide or in select counties. One of them was North Carolina, whose dramatically more readable ballot paper may have had a noticeable impact. According to provisional information from the state election committee, the proportion of postal ballot papers that were submitted due to incomplete witness information rose from 1.4 percent in 2016 to 0.6 percent in 2020.
Quesenbery himself, however, downplayed the CCD’s role in lowering rejection rates and gave more credit to voter education campaigns. “If the whole thing Nude election story broke out in Pennsylvania that [Pennsylvania] The State Department was there. We helped them create posters that they sent to every polling station in the county, ”she said, adding that they also helped the voting rights activists spread the word through posters and social media. Similarly, Patrick suggested that public service journalism in the media, showing voters exactly how to submit their postal votes, helped many first-time postal voters avoid its potential pitfalls. But in the end, the people I spoke to kept reminding me that the low rejection rate was evidence for the voters themselves. “It was such an important election that I think voters took these messages to heart and were particularly careful to follow the instructions,” said Tassinari. Quesenbery agreed, “I think people spent a lot of time thinking about how to make sure their vote counts.”
The verdict will not be final until we get data for all 50 states, but at this point it seems like most states have been very successful in lowering their absentee voting rates in 2020 – and it is important that we take note of this take like they did. Last fall’s efforts to keep rejection rates down were not automatic. They were born from experience, good and bad. “Red flags and alarm whistles went off after last year’s primaries,” noted Patrick, driving many states to set the policies and systems that had resulted in so many ballot papers. Much of Massachusetts’ success has been based on best practices from other seasoned states: “We have been in touch with other states that vote primarily via email, such as Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. They gave helpful tips, ”said Tassinari.
Now it will be up to states to use what they learned from 2020 to keep rejection rates as low as possible in future elections.