2020 Election Could Hinge on Whose Votes Don’t Count

An absentee ballot for the U.S. 2020 election is pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.

An absentee ballot for the U.S. 2020 election is pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

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More than 1 million people will likely lose their vote on Nov. 3. That’s the best case.

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.

The stakes could not be higher.

Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, rejected roughly 60,000 votes in primaries earlier this year, said Amherst College law professor Lawrence Douglas, only a few thousand votes shy of Trump’s margin of victory in 2016.

“A result like this in November could cast doubt on who actually carried the key swing states, with the overall election hanging in the balance,” said Douglas, who added that such an outcome could trigger “a chaotic welter of lawsuits and clashing conspiracy theories.”

CJI projects the three states could discard between 44,499 to 66,749 votes in the presidential election.

Confusion over rules and logistical problems with mail could create “a toxic brew” in close races, said attorney Jarret Berg, co-founder of VoteEarlyNY, a nonprofit providing information on how to vote in New York. “I’m concerned about ideological bloodbath,” Berg said.

Not everyone is equally likely to lose their vote. In 2016 and again in 2018, rejected absentee ballots fell along racial, ethnic and wealth divides. Asian-Americans in California’s Santa Clara County, New York City voters in largely Black and Hispanic boroughs and Arizona voters in counties with the lowest household incomes were all more likely to have their absentee votes jettisoned in the last presidential election.

In some counties, rejected votes in November will be a small fraction of an estimated 70 million absentee ballots. However, even “infrequent problems could nevertheless wind up affecting substantial numbers of people,” said Michael Morley, an election law expert and assistant professor at Florida State University’s College of Law.

“Assume that everything goes perfectly 99.8% of the time,” Morley said. “Well, .02 percent of 70 million winds up being an awful lot of people.”

In New Hampshire, projected absentee ballot rejections are almost 12 times the slim margin of victory that sent Democrat Maggie Hassan to the U.S. Senate in 2016. In North Carolina, Roy Cooper, also a Democrat, won the governor’s seat by just over 10,000 votes — more than 8 times that number could be lost to absentee rejections this November.

Discarded ballots don’t automatically give either party an edge, as President Donald Trump has suggested. It’s true that in certain states, the number of discarded ballots could match or top Trump’s margin of victory in 2016. In Michigan, for example, between 11,139 and 16,709 absentee votes could be rejected in the battleground state he won in 2016 by 10,704 votes.

However, USA Today/CJI also projects between 182,000 and 273,000 more votes could be tossed this year in counties won by Democrats during the 2016 presidential election than in those counties won by the GOP.

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.

Local discards could decide national election

Absentee rejections are projected to flood states featuring fierce political battlegrounds, according to CJI’s analysis. Home to Las Vegas, Clark County Nevada is expected to discard between 6,126 and 9,190 ballots. New Orleans’ parish rejected 285 in the last presidential contest — this year, the number could pass 3,000.

North Carolina expects no more than three in 10 will vote absentee, lowering rejected ballots to roughly 37,000, below CJI projections but thousands higher than the 4,800 discarded ballots in the last presidential election. If the rate of discarded ballots also grows, it could be “astronomical,” said Alissa Ellis, advocacy director of Democracy North Carolina.

Philadelphia County had three times Pennsylvania’s rejection rate in the last presidential election, all but one tossed for lacking a voter’s signature. That involved just 461 absentees.

The county is projected to reject up to 14,682 absentee ballots this November. Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down a decision that could dramatically raise the number of rejected ballots in Philadelphia County to 30,000-40,000, estimated Philadelphia City Commission chair Lisa Deely.

Voters put their absentee ballot into a “privacy” envelope and then put that envelope into another envelope to be mailed. If they forget and use one envelope, their vote now won’t be counted — a common mistake, Deely said.

“People just don’t think about putting one envelope inside another envelope. It’s just not something you do,” Deely said.

She warned of “electoral chaos” in November if state lawmakers don’t address the issue. “It’s just not fair to throw out a vote because of a technicality,” she said.

Wisconsin elections are often decided by razor-thin margins: It was considered a tipping-point state in 2016, giving Trump a victory margin of just 22,748 votes. The state could lose between 2,387 to 3,580 votes in November, CJI found, far below that threshold.

But Wisconsin’s rate of rejection more than tripled in their April primary, held amid COVID-19, compared with 2016’s general election. Though it was a much smaller election, more than 23,000 ballots were tossed.

“I think any rejected ballot is a travesty, we don’t want any legitimate voter to have their ballot go uncounted because of an administrative mishap, a missing signature, a slow mail delivery,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who analyzed Wisconsin absentee data.

“But there’s a secondary concern, which is the number of rejected ballots is large enough that it could affect the outcome of the election.”

Rates can also fall from 2016 levels, particularly if voters are allowed to fix certain errors before their vote is discarded. Georgia Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said absentee rejection rates plummeted to roughly one percent in the recent primary due to post-2016 rules making it easier for voters to address those problems. Of 110,000 absentees cast for November, 40 have been rejected, he said.

Louisiana, which adopted provisions to fix errors similar to Georgia’s, estimates about 20,000 of roughly 200,000 absentee ballots could be discarded, below the CJI projection of 32,000. “We hope your numbers are high,” said Tyler Brey, spokesman for the Secretary of State. “We hope we can bring it down to zero.”

The historically disenfranchised will be most impacted

Milwaukee Rev. Greg Lewis risks more than most if he votes in person this November.

For much of March, COVID-19 confined the 62-year-old to a hospital bed. “Four or five or six people who I knew, they died while I was in the ICU,” he said. “I shouldn’t even be here.”

But Lewis understands why Black voters like himself, who have long opted to vote in person, may head to the polls rather than vote absentee, despite the risk of COVID. “There’s mistrust of the system,” said Lewis, founder of the clergy-based get out the vote effort Souls to the Polls. “People don’t think their votes are going to get counted,”

USA Today/CJI research found that in certain counties and states, voting absentee put communities of color at a disadvantage in 2016, a racial divide especially troubling given expected high turnout this November among minority groups .

Combined, North Carolina counties with the largest percentage of Black residents rejected ballots at sharply higher rates than the rest of the state that year. Local election supervisors reported 7 of every 10 votes rejected in those counties were for fixable problems, such as missing witness signatures. But until an August court ruling, North Carolina did not have to notify voters and give them a chance to correct minor errors. It’s not certain voters will get the relief. As of Oct. 8 — less than a month before election day — the fate of North Carolina election policy remains tied up in court.

In New York, an absentee ballot cast in heavily minority Bronx, Queens, Kings and New York counties was more than two times more likely to get rejected in 2016 than in New York state as a whole. In Nevada counties with the largest percentage of Hispanic residents, an absentee vote was 2.2 times more likely to be rejected in 2016 than in counties which were less than 20 percent Hispanic. New Jersey, Louisiana, Georgia and Nevada all had higher rejection rates in majority-minority counties.

Living in wealthier counties could mean the difference between getting an absentee vote counted or discarded in certain states. As a group, voters in Pennsylvania counties where family income topped $50,000 were twice as likely to get their absentee ballot counted. In Wisconsin, it was voters in counties where household incomes topped $45,000 that had double the chance of getting their ballot accepted. A similar pattern repeated in Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.

Nationally, counties where the poverty rate was less than one percent also had a rejection rate of less than one percent in the last presidential election. But in counties where more than three of every 10 residents lived in poverty, the percentage of uncounted absentee ballots tripled.

“It’s kind of a luxury to be able to put something in the mail. Some people may say, ‘Oh, well, what do you mean, you don’t you just put it in your mailbox and stick the red flag up?’ That’s assuming I have a mailbox,” said Rev. Charles Williams, the Midwestern regional director of the civil rights organization National Action Network.

Post-election focus could be on signatures

An apparently mismatched signature is not the most common cause of reported ballot rejections.

However, it is the only ballot rejection category based on a best guess, and for that reason, the one expected to trigger post-election scrutiny.

“It is rife with uncertainty and one where all sides are lawyering up,” said Gregory Miller, co-founder of The OSET Institute, whose TrustTheVote Project began focusing on absentee voting last January.

Comparing a voter’s signature on a ballot to their signature on official documents, such as voter registration, is one way to guard against fraud.

Verifying a signature typically requires a ballot-by-ballot examination and a judgment call by a panel or election officials. Training varies not just from state to state, but in some cases from county to county.

A few local elections officials are using signature verification software. But a Stanford Law School study showed that in California, without “human review, automation increases the rejection rate by 1.7 points — a 74 percent increase for the average rejection rate.”

Minority voters in California, Florida and Arizona have been hard hit by signature questions. In Florida, seven of every 10 absentee votes tossed for mismatched signatures in the last presidential contest were in heavily-Hispanic counties. A 2017 study of four California counties found that Asian-Americans’ absentee votes were disproportionately discarded because of mismatched signatures. In an August lawsuit, the Navajo Nation cited high rates of discarded votes based on signature mismatches.

Stress, the type of pen used, whether a voter frequently signs their name and age can all affect any one signature. President George H.W. Bush’s signature in 1972, for instance, is noticeably different from his signature when in the White House just 13 years later.

Millennials and Gen-Xers have less experience signing paper documents, and in California have been “much more likely to have their ballots rejected for bad signatures than older voters,” said the California Voting Foundation’s Alexander. “They’re not used to providing a signature for verification purposes. And many of them are never even taught cursive in school anymore.”

William Gilligan, 83, is comfortable with paper, but has had two strokes. He’s a plaintiff in a Pennsylvania lawsuit challenging signature verification and said he “does not believe he could reliably sign his name the same way each time he does so.”

Given the expected surge of absentees, even the best trained elections worker is more likely to make mistakes, said Eddie Perez, OSET’s Director of Technology Development & Open Standards. “It comes down to how many hours a day can someone with weary eyes do this work.”

Why ballots get rejected

Years before COVID-19 triggered more than 140 absentee-related lawsuits over how and whether a person can vote by mail, voters had to navigate an often confusing patchwork of requirements that differ from state to state.

Wisconsin requires a witness. Alabama had required two witnesses or a notary, a rule that is now being decided in court. People who helped mail a voter’s ballot have risked fines in Connecticut and felony charges in Texas.

“There are all those little rules,” said Jan Combopiano, a member of the Executive Committee of the Brooklyn Voters Alliance. “We call it voter suppression by process.”

During the 2020 Milwaukee primary, people who most needed to isolate — the elderly and ill — were also required to bring someone into their home to verify their ballot, said Neil Albrecht, outgoing executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.

“People would call us in tears because they were so concerned about having someone come into their house and sign their absentee ballot as a witness,” Albrecht told Frontline.

“And rather than place themselves at risk, by bringing someone into their home, to sign as a witness to their absentee ballot, they sent those absentee ballots in without a witness signature,” Albrecht said. “And many of those absentee ballots then ended up being rejected.”

Other hurdles have nothing to do with paperwork. In their August lawsuit, the Navajo Nation argued that the Arizona portion of their sprawling 13 million-acre reservation has just eleven post offices . It takes 10 days for a ballot sent from Apache County to get to the Phoenix elections office when ballots mailed from Scottsdale would take 18 hours.

In Nevada, nine of 14 reservation and colony lands have no post office at all .

Voters must know their state’s rules

With roughly 340 voters, the Town of Colby, Wisconsin exemplifies why ballot rejection rates in densely populated counties are higher than in more rural counties. If a voter has a problem, Town Clerk Theoline Ludwig will drive to their home and help.

“Anybody who’s got an issue calls my home number and if they really got an issue they come to my house,” she said. “Absentee voting is done in my house.”

Larger counties facing an avalanche of ballots do not have the luxury of such one-on-one attention. COVID-19, which is driving the rise of absentee voting, has also hoovered up money needed to educate first-time absentee voters how to get their vote counted.

After the Utah legislature slashed $250,000 from the elections office budget this summer, money for educational postcards and voter information pamphlets dried up, said Justin Lee, that state’s director of elections. This summer, the Arizona legislature zeroed out money the Secretary of State had budgeted to fight disinformation.

“I would love to have billboards, but that’s expensive,” said Deidre B. Holden, Supervisor of Elections and Voter Registration in Paulding County, Georgia. “Do I spend money on that or do I hire someone to get through thousands of absentee ballots?”

Educating voters on how to successfully cast an absentee ballot is a moving target. Local elections officials are scrambling to keep up with absentee ballot lawsuits over everything from the number of dropboxes to ballot design. In a single day, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended mail deadlines, authorized dropboxes and ruled election boards did not have to tell voters their ballots had fixable problems.

“The biggest issues that are up in the air right now will be what additional changes federal courts might make,” said Forrest Lehman, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania elections director. “Say one of the courts changes the ballot deadline again, it’s going to be almost impossible to get correct information out.”

In North Carolina, rules shift virtually every year.

“A law will get halfway implemented, then get enjoined by the courts, then a more refined law will get struck down, and it leaves us in limbo,” said Democracy North Carolina Senior Researcher Sunny Frothingham. “Voters call us and they don’t know if ID is required, they don’t know about early voting.”

In states where the election is already underway, absentee rejections have begun piling up along with early votes. That only underscores the value of early absentee voting, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor whose United States Election Project tracks rejected ballots.

“You see this in the data, where people who had their ballots sent earlier are more likely to have them accepted than the ones coming in later,” McDonald said. “It gives the election official and you the time to fix whatever problem there might be.”

Some counties and states offer ballot tracking software allowing a voter to watch their vote get delivered to the election office. If the election date is close, McDonald suggests taking the ballot to a dropbox or to the local election office — after first calling that office to make sure it’s acceptable.

For those who haven’t submitted ballots, there may still be time to recheck and update registration records to reflect a name change from marriage, or an address change, said Anne Houghtaling, Deputy Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Thurgood Marshall Institute. Filling out a ballot early also provides time to make sure signatures haven’t been overlooked, and every line has been filled out.

“There are a lot of T’s to cross and I’s to dot,” said Houghtaling. “But if you believe in the fundamental promise of our democracy, of one man, one vote, then we need to do everything to ensure that people entitled to that vote, get it.”


Sarah Gelbard of CJI and FRONTLINE contributed reporting. 

Editor’s Note: For a deeper dive, see the methodology Columbia Journalism Investigations used to produce the article and interactive graphic, above — both companion stories to FRONTLINE’s forthcoming documentary Whose Vote Counts. Together, this collection of investigative reporting is a partnership between Columbia Journalism InvestigationsColumbia Journalism SchoolUSA Today Network and FRONTLINE. The analysis was conducted in conjunction with Merlin Heidemanns, a political scientist at Columbia University.

Pat Beall, USA TODAY Network

Catharina Felke, Reporter, Columbia Journalism Investigations

Jackie Hajdenberg, Columbia Journalism Investigations

Elizabeth Mulvey, Reporter, Columbia Journalism Investigations

Aseem Shukla, Columbia Journalism Investigations

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