Dealing with Rejection: What Causes Ballots to be Rejected, and What Voters can do About it

by Jessica Folker
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Due to the pandemic, more Americans than ever are expected to vote by mail for the November election, many of them for the first time. That change, however, means that there might also be record numbers of ballots rejected due to signature discrepancies or small mistakes.

According to projections by USA Today and Columbia Journalism Investigations, more than 1 million ballots could be rejected if half of U.S. voters choose to vote by mail. NPR has reported that more than 550,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in this year’s primaries.

Voter inexperience with mail-in ballot procedures is often cited as a reason for ballot rejections. But in Colorado, where mail-in ballots have been the default for years, voters are generally savvier about which pen to use, where to sign and how to return their ballots on time. Still, about .6% of ballots cast in Colorado are initially rejected, and some groups are disproportionately affected. Here’s what causes ballots to be flagged, who is most likely to have a signature rejected and what voters can do to make sure their votes count.

UNEVEN REJECTION RATES

There are several reasons a mail-in ballot might be rejected, with the most common being a mismatch between the signature on the envelope and other signatures on file with the state, said Holland & Hart partner Chris Jackson, who is also an adjunct election law professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Ballots might also be rejected if multiple members of a household attempt to submit their votes in a single envelope, he said, or if ballots haven’t been filled out correctly.

The likelihood of a ballot being rejected varies by race, ethnicity and location. Researchers from the University of Florida found that Black and Hispanic voters in Florida were twice as likely to have their votes rejected as white voters in 2018, while FiveThirtyEight reported last month that in North Carolina, Black voters’ 2020 ballots were being rejected at a rate four times higher than for white voters.

Closer to home, a Colorado Public Radio investigation found that the two Colorado counties with the largest share of Hispanic population, Pueblo and Adams, had some of the highest ballot rejection rates in the last two general elections, and voters with the surname “Martinez” were most likely to have their ballots rejected during the June 2020 primary.

Between .52% and .66% of all cast ballots in Colorado have signature discrepancies, according to the Office of the Secretary of State, and the rate fell from .61% in the 2016 general election to .52% in 2018.

Younger voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected. Voters in the 18-20 age group had a signature discrepancy rate of 1.6-1.9% during the 2018 election, according to data from the Secretary of State’s office. Younger voters are more likely to have their signatures flagged because they have fewer signatures on file from past elections or with other state agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, and their signatures are also more likely to be developing.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, women’s ballots were slightly less likely to be rejected than men’s due to signature verification problems.

Republican signatures were least likely to be rejected but were “followed closely by Democratic signatures,” the office said, while unaffiliated voters — who make up 40% of the Colorado electorate — were twice as likely to be rejected than members affiliated with either major party.

THERE’S A CURE

The good news for Coloradans is that the state requires signatures be reviewed carefully by election judges and that voters be given a chance to clear up any discrepancies.

“In most Colorado counties, what they have is a computer program that will just check the signature against the ones that it has on file,” Jackson said. “And the vast majority of those go through without a problem.”

If a signature is flagged for a discrepancy, state law requires a verification process in which a single election judge reviews the signature against others on file in a state database. If the judge rejects the signature, then a team of two other judges from different political affiliations will review it. If they all agree the signature is a mismatch, then the ballot is rejected, according to the Secretary of State’s office, but if even one judge approves the signature, the ballot is accepted.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, Colorado requires judges to look at all signatures on file in the state database in order to avoid one-off rejections, and clerks must audit judges to prevent “rogue judges” from flouting verification rules.

If a ballot is rejected, the voter will receive a letter, and also an email if they have an email address in their voter registration file, to allow them to cure their ballots. The curing process requires voters to sign and return an affidavit along with a photocopy of their ID to their county election office.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold on Oct. 7 announced a new program called TXT2Cure that will allow voters to resolve signature discrepancies using their smartphones. The program is “especially geared for younger voters,” according to a news release, and encourages those with rejected ballots to submit the affidavits and photos of their IDs electronically rather than by mail.

“The Secretary’s new TXT2Cure system will make signature verification and ballot curing options more accessible to young people, who often do not have the printers, scanners, and mailing supplies to cure their ballots in the traditional way and are voting for the first time,” said Nicole Hensel, Executive Director of New Era Colorado, in an Oct. 7 news release. “During a pandemic, this system will allow us to support more young people in making sure their voices are heard through their vote.”

While the expansion of absentee and mail-in ballots amid the pandemic has raised concerns about fraud and the potential for high ballot rejection rates, Holland & Hart’s Jackson said people shouldn’t worry too much about Colorado.

“Colorado has a very good election system. That’s because there are a ton of election officials across the state… that have worked very hard for years to make the system work well, and in particular, to make the mail-in ballot system work well,” he said.

“I think that we’re lucky in the sense that in our state, it’s going to work better and there’s a much, much smaller chance of anything big going wrong because all the kinks have been worked out.”

This article appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other articles from that issue, order a copy online. Subscribers can request a digital PDF of the issue.