2020 Election Could Hinge on Whose Votes Don’t Count

By Pat Beall, Catharina Felke, Jackie Hajdenberg, Elizabeth Mulvey, Aseem Shukla,
Front Line,
October 8, 2020


In a normal election year in any given state, hundreds or even thousands of absentee ballots get tossed for everything from late postmarks to open envelopes.

North Carolina rejected 546 ballots for missing witness signatures in the 2012 presidential race. Virginia tossed 216 ballots in the 2018 midterms because they arrived in an unofficial envelope. Arizona discarded 1,516 ballots for non-matching signatures the same year.

The 2020 presidential election will not be normal.

Absentee ballot rejections this November are projected to reach historic levels, risking widespread disenfranchisement of minority voters and the credibility of election results, a USA Today Network, Columbia Journalism Investigations and FRONTLINE investigation found.

At least 1.03 million absentee ballots could be tossed if half of the nation votes by mail. Discarded votes jump to 1.55 million if 75 percent of the country votes absentee. In the latter scenario, more than 185,000 votes could be lost in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — states considered key to capturing the White House.

These numbers are conservative and based on 2016 rejection rates, when there were fewer voters submitting absentee ballots. Record numbers of voters will be voting absentee for the first time in 2020, and voters new to vote-by-mail are at greater risk of making mistakes. If errors push the rejection rate up just two percent, roughly 2.15 million votes would be cast aside — roughly the population of New Mexico.

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For months, though, the political groundwork has been laid to challenge vote by mail results. Attorney General William Barr in September wrongly claimed that 1,700 mail ballots had been fraudulently cast in Texas. Trump has decried absentee votes as fraudulent and rigged against him. In September, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election, citing his belief in widespread absentee ballot fraud.

The coming wave of absentee ballot rejections is not due to voter fraud, USA Today/CJI found, but instead the byproduct of 200 million eligible voters navigating an often-confusing voting process where simple mistakes can cost a vote. Further, the rules are shifting: Lawsuits are driving down-to-the-wire changes on how to vote by mail, heightening the risk even well-informed absentee voters will turn in a defective ballot.

Rejecting one ballot is not rejecting just one vote. Because a single ballot can have a dozen or more local and state contests, thousands of ballots rejected translates to hundreds of thousands of lost votes, said Kim Alexander, President of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation. “If this were a banking system, nobody would accept an error rate of that kind,” Alexander said.

Yet widespread ballot rejection is not inevitable, say election officials, voting advocates and academics.

Election officials in almost every state cited missed deadlines for the majority of rejections in 2012, 2016 and 2018. Voters concerned over slow postal delivery may be able to put their ballot in a dropbox, or bring it to the local election office, depending on state rules. Also working in voters’ favor: Since 2016, new laws and court orders have led multiple states to offer voters a chance to fix ballot errors such as missing signatures, mismatched signatures and other procedural problems.

Local elections officials want to help.

“It’s never a warm feeling to have to reject a ballot,” said Ingham County, Michigan clerk Barb Byrum. (Full Story)