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Why Some Mail-In Ballots Are Rejected As Invalid


With an unprecedented number of people planning to vote by mail this year, we wanted to dig into this number.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I read today where at least 1% of the ballots for 2016 were invalidated. They take them. We don't like them. We don't like them.

MARTIN: That's President Trump speaking during the debate. And while he made several false claims about the integrity of mail-in voting, it's true that some ballots do get invalidated, and we wanted to understand why. NPR's Miles Parks is with us to answer our question. Miles, welcome. Thanks for joining us.


Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So since this will be the first time many people will be using mail-in voting, exactly how common is it that ballots are invalidated?

PARKS: So Trump is right about that 1% number, but that's 1% of the absentee ballots that were turned in in 2016, not 1% of all ballots that were cast, just to be clear on that. But this is a real problem, and it probably will be worse this year. You know, we saw more than 550,000 mail ballots rejected this year in the primaries alone. And you think about how much more mail voting there is going to be this year than there ever has been. And we also know experts tell us that first-time mail-in voters are much more likely to have issues with their ballots counting than people who have used the system many times before.

MARTIN: So what causes a ballot to be invalidated? What are the most common mistakes?

PARKS: So looking back at the 2016 data, the most common mistake there was a signature that somebody put that didn't match the signature that election officials had on file for them. After that, the next most common is ballots that arrive late after a deadline. You know, a lot of states have changed the rules around when ballots have to actually get in the hands of election officials, whether they have to be postmarked by Election Day or get in the hands of election officials on Election Day. You should just check with your local election official on what the latest rules on that is. But then after that, it's people who just forgot to put a signature at all on the envelope around their ballot, and that's why their ballot didn't count.

MARTIN: If there is an issue with your mail-in ballot, will you be informed?

PARKS: Like everything in voting, you know, this is different from state to state. But in the states that do a lot of mail-in voting, it is common that the election official is required in a lot of places to reach out to the voter. Voters, just check with their local election official to make sure that's the case. But what election officials say is people should really try to get this right the first time, so you're not banking on that, considering how overwhelmed election officials might be this year.

MARTIN: So how about from the voter's perspective? I mean, is there a way to track it like you would a package? Is there a way for you as the voter to follow up to see whether you did it right?

PARKS: Yeah. This is pretty new, actually, and it's kind of gone under the radar this year. But almost every state - I think 45 states at this point according to the National Vote at Home Institute - allow some way for a voter to track on the back end whether their ballot was received or not. And then a few states even go further. There are some states where they'll text you or email you the same way with like an Amazon package. You can follow it all the way along the route. And you can actually watch it when they say it's been counted. So you should check to see if that's available to you, but for most voters it is.

MARTIN: So what are the experts saying are the best ways to ensure that your vote is counted?

PARKS: There's really one thing to focus here that covers all of this, and that's be early with your mail ballot. You know, that is how you can avoid a lot of these issues. If you're early in turning that ballot in, it gives the election official time to reach back out to you if there is an issue if you're in one of those states that allows that. It also means there's no shot that you could miss that deadline. You're giving yourself just a much better shot to have that ballot counted.

MARTIN: That was NPR reporter Miles sparks. If you want to hear more about how to make sure your vote is counted, check out the latest NPR Life Kit featuring Miles. Miles, thank you so much.

PARKS: Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.