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Efforts To Help Absentee Voters Drove Down Mail-In Ballot Rejection Rates


More than half a million ballots were rejected in the primary elections due to errors or missed deadlines, as NPR reported earlier this spring. That raised concerns that, with a much higher turnout in November, millions more ballots would be tossed. But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, that didn't happen.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Florida resident Kirk Nielsen was very careful when he went to vote this fall. He did it early and deposited his mail-in ballot in a dropbox provided by Miami-Dade County.

KIRK NIELSEN: So early voting - dropbox. Checked the supervisor of elections website a couple days later, and it was tabulated. So it worked swell.

FESSLER: Which was a big relief because in 2018, his ballot did not count. It arrived too late, despite being mailed more than a week before Election Day. The same thing happened earlier this year to tens of thousands of primary voters. And with so many more people voting by mail this November, the fear was that millions of ballots would be rejected due to missed deadlines, missing or mismatched signatures and other mistakes. Instead, rejections went down in places like North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Florida and elsewhere.

DANIEL SMITH: The overall rejection rates were less than half of a percent.

FESSLER: Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, says out of almost 5 million mail-in ballots cast in his state, fewer than 9,000 were rejected - a much lower rate than in previous elections. And he says it wasn't because voters made fewer mistakes.

SMITH: The rates of ballots being flagged for problems wasn't any lower than in past elections, it's just that individuals were able to cure their ballots in a timely fashion to make sure that their ballots would count.

FESSLER: As in many other states this year, Florida made it easier for voters to fix or cure their ballots. For example, mail-in ballots included space where voters could provide their email address or phone number. That allowed election officials, as well as campaigns and interest groups, to contact voters more quickly about possible mistakes so they could be fixed on time.

Jared Dearing, executive director of Kentucky's Board of Elections, says his state also took steps to help absentee voters after more than 25,000 ballots were rejected in the June primary.

JARED DEARING: So what we tried to do is create one - uniformity of process, and two - to give some pretty clear guidelines to the counties of what could be counted, what couldn't be counted.

FESSLER: He said some counties were discarding ballots for reasons that others did not, such as a voter signing the envelope in the wrong place. The state also created an online portal where voters could apply for an absentee ballot, track its progress and be alerted of potential problems. That helped cut rejections dramatically to about 2,500 votes in November. Dearing says something else helped, too - a monumental shift in voter behavior. As though all those warnings about tossed ballots and postal delays really sunk in.

DEARING: For the first time, voters were not waiting until the last day to mail these things. They were all mailing them weeks ahead of time.

AMBER MCREYNOLDS: It's a teachable moment, right?

FESSLER: Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, sees one silver lining. The fact that so many primary ballots were rejected helped voters learn how to do it right.

MCREYNOLDS: You get your ballot rejected, then you're probably not going to make that mistake again.

FESSLER: And ironically, some election officials think President Trump's repeated attacks on mail-in voting also helped, keeping the issue front and center. Voters heard over and over again how important it was to follow the rules. McReynolds hopes that states learn from this year's experience and find more ways to make voting by mail easier and problem free.

But initial signs aren't encouraging. Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere are citing Trump's baseless claims that mail-in voting leads to widespread fraud, and they're already talking about ways to restrict it. If only, they say, to restore confidence in the system. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.