It was the nightmare scenario for the 2020 election: With so many more people than usual casting absentee ballots, observers feared that a significant share of ballots would be rejected for not following proper procedure. One study, for instance, showed that first-time mail voters, who are less familiar with the rules of absentee voting, were up to three times more likely to have their votes rejected, and at least 550,000 absentee ballots went uncounted during last spring and summer’s heavily vote-by-mail primary elections.
But those fears did not come to pass. According to data collected by FiveThirtyEight from state election offices, not only did absentee-ballot rejection rates not rise, but rejected ballots were actually less of a problem than they were in 2016.
From the 27 states, plus Washington, D.C., where we were able to obtain data, only 297,347 out of 47,999,299 absentee ballots cast in the 2020 general election were rejected — a rejection rate of 0.6 percent. And in 20 of the 23 jurisdictions that provided data for the last two presidential elections, the 2020 rejection rate was lower than 2016’s. (Data is not yet available in the remaining states but will eventually be released as part of the 2020 Election Administration and Voting Survey.)…
One reason for this is obvious: Voters heeded election officials’ exhortations to send back their absentee ballots as early as possible. Ubiquitous reminders in the media and saturation coverage of problems at the U.S. Postal Service likely helped, too. But states by and large also proactively changed their election policies to prevent ballots from getting tossed due to lateness. Several states extended their deadlines so that ballots could arrive after Election Day (as long as they were properly postmarked), including Massachusetts. Michelle Tassinari, the director of the commonwealth’s Elections Division, told FiveThirtyEight that this was a big reason for the Bay State’s improvement.
Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser with the Democracy Fund, also applauded states for giving voters ways to return their ballots other than mailing them back (which, of course, can take several days). “Those return options made the difference in many ballots not coming back late.” Indeed, according to preliminary findings from the Survey of the Performance of American Elections, 45 percent of mail ballots were dropped off in person in 2020, up from 29 percent in 2016. In large part, this was because of increased access to ballot drop boxes. At least 38 states plus Washington, D.C., offered drop boxes in the 2020 general election, up from about 13 that did so before 2020. According to Tassinari, this was another secret to Massachusetts’s success. “We encouraged every city and town to get drop boxes, and some municipalities even had multiple drop boxes,” she said. “For instance, the City of Worcester had them in all the fire stations.”
Some states also implemented reforms to speed up the USPS’s ability to process ballots. “More states used intelligent mail bar codes [on their ballot envelopes] that allowed the postal service to know where ballots were and make sure they were processed in a timely manner,” explained Patrick. Massachusetts was one of those states: Election officials applied for 351 separate postal permits for special envelopes with bar codes pre-addressed to the 351 city and town clerks across the commonwealth — “a difficult, exhausting process,” Tassinari told us, but one that was worth it in the end. Instead of having to be hand-stamped, Tassinari explained, the envelopes could be processed automatically, leading to faster delivery.
Ballot lateness wasn’t the only problem that got better in 2020. Some states also cut into the second-most common reason absentee ballots tend to get rejected: voter error, such as a missing or invalid signature on the ballot envelope. For example, 15 states plus Washington, D.C., began offering voters the ability to “cure,” or fix mistakes on, their absentee ballots, according to Amber McReynolds and Grace Beyer of the National Vote at Home Institute. (That’s on top of the 17 states that already allowed ballot-curing before 2020.) State data suggests that this prevented thousands of ballots from being rejected. In Kentucky, which temporarily changed its election laws last year to allow ballot curing, 2,933 ballots were cured, leaving only 1,197 that were rejected. In Georgia, a state that had a cure process previously, 2,777 ballots were cured, cutting the number of ballots that were eventually rejected to 7,604.