A Washington Post analysis found that more than 534,000 mail ballots were rejected in primaries in 23 states this year and a separate NPR analysis found more than 558,000 ballots rejected in 30 states. By comparison, less than 318,000 ballots were rejected in the 2016 general election, raising concerns that ballot issues could tip the election. After all, the 2016 presidential race was decided by about 77,000 combined votes, spread across in three states.
"We've been worried about this problem," said Ellen Kurz, a veteran of several presidential campaigns who co-founded iVoteFacts, a nonprofit that seeks to educate voters about new voting options amid the pandemic. "New York's [21%] rate was crazy and New Jersey was 10%. And one of the big problems is the fact that voting by mail is going to be new in a lot of these states."
"You can't have 10% of voters disqualified because of a technicality," she told Salon in an interview. "That's nuts."
Twenty states have expanded mail voting amid the pandemic this year, resulting in many voters casting mail ballots for the very first time. A recent study found that first-time mail voters in Florida were twice as likely to have their ballots rejected than voters who had previously voted by mail. The issue is particularly concerning in key battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the three states that tipped the race to President Trump in 2016. Election officials in those states alone "tossed out more than 60,480 ballots" during the primaries, according to the Washington Post. More than 60,000 more votes were rejected in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Nevada and Maine.
"If the election is close, it doesn't matter how well it was run — it will be a mess," Charles Stewart III, an election data expert at MIT, told the Post. "The two campaigns will be arguing over nonconforming ballots, which is going to run up against voters' beliefs in fair play."
Some states expect to see a tenfold increase in the number of mail ballots cast this year. While some states have long held elections by mail, in some cases exclusively, others are unprepared to handle the influx.
"In states like Colorado or Washington, where they've been implementing vote by mail for a long time, or at least over several cycles, you don't see that signature spoilage rate. So it's the newness of the process," Kurz told Salon. "When you first implement vote-by-mail, a lot of things can go wrong."
Washington state, which has held all-mail elections for years, has a rejection rate of between 1% and 2%, Kylee Zabel, a spokeswoman for Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, told Salon.
"Ballots are most commonly rejected for late postmarks, or missing or mismatched signatures," Zabel explained.
Voters in at least 20 states, including Washington, can address signature issues until Election Day, though although the processes for doing so vary by state.
"In order for their completed ballot to be processed, voters must sign and date the exterior of their (postage prepaid!) return envelope," Zabel said. "Those signatures are checked against the signatures on file in their voter registration records. If a signature does not match, the county elections office reaches out to the voter with a form they can sign and return to attest to the validity of their signature. This enables the voter to correct or update their signature on file and, if the voter did not return a ballot, notify election officials that a ballot may have been returned fraudulently on their behalf."
Kurz's organization aims to educate voters, with the goal of avoiding having their ballot ensnared in the system.
"Depending on the state, we have legal redress for ballots… but who wants to go through that?" she said. "It would be so much better if people just were informed and educated and reminded about the proper way to fill their ballot out, the proper time to return it and the place to put your signature."
In some states, stray marks on a ballot can lead to disqualification. In others, slight tears in the envelope can invalidate a ballot.
Kurz is planning to launch an advertising campaign to educate voters about how to properly fill out their ballot and iVoteFacts will soon launch an app that will help voters in a half-dozen states that are adopting expanded mail voting systems get all the information they need.
"Sometimes the instructions are really simple, just reminding voters to sign their ballot," she said. "It's literally that people fill the ballots out wrong."
Democratic lawyers and election officials in more than 30 states are pushing to limit the number of reasons that ballots can be rejected. Studies have found that these rejections disproportionately affect voters of color and young people.
Each state has a "unique system," a spokesperson for the National Association of Secretaries of State told Salon, but "overall, every state is encouraging their voters to mail back or deliver ballots as early as possible."
Some states, like Michigan, are pushing for the legislature to extend deadlines and allow ballots that are postmarked by Election Day to be counted even if they arrive several days later.
"If that doesn't change and if there are no other changes, we're facing a scenario where we could have to reject a number of otherwise valid votes sent through the mail that are delayed through no fault of the voter, because of the Postal Service or some other snafu," Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson recently told voting rights activists. "So those voters could be disenfranchised, and that number could exceed the margin of victory for a number of races, statewide and local."
Many states are also adding ballot drop boxes so that voters don't have to rely on the USPS to send back their ballot.
Kurz said that secretaries of state have led the charge on trying to educate voters on how to make sure their vote is counted.
"I call them the first responders because nobody should lose their vote or their voice because they put their signature or marked the envelope in the wrong way," she said. "There's a hundred reasons that are just ridiculous. And then you add to that the post office troubles and Trump's campaign, and you could see a disaster really happening. We're trying to avoid that. I think the secretaries [of state] are really going to be really focused on this ballot spoilage issue."
While secretaries of state and Democratic lawyers have sought to ease restrictions that can lead to a ballot being rejected, Trump and many Republican elected officials have launched a legal campaign of their own, arguing that strict signature-matching requirements and voter identification are necessary to prevent fraud. Numerous studies have found that mail-ballot fraud is virtually nonexistent.
"Overhauling the way Americans vote less than 80 days out will only spread chaos and confusion," Mandi Merritt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, told the Post.
Kurz described the ballot rejection issue as a "potential hanging chad on steroids," referring to an infamous issue that arose during the controversial Florida recount in the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
"Anything that is going to decrease people's voices being heard is just terrible for the country," she said. "So in a pandemic, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, you should be trying to solve these problems, not throw wrenches into the problem. That's absurd. There's a global pandemic and, more than ever, people need to vote on who their leaders should be to see us out of this. So we should not be doing things to stop people from voting. It's un-American. Any issue where you're trying to stop eligible citizens from voting, you're just wrong."