The risk is real, especially among voters who have not voted by mail in the past.
A recent Washington Post analysis found that more than 534,000 mail ballots were rejected during primaries across 23 states this year, disenfranchising voters and offering a preview of what could happen in November, when voter turnout is likely to rise dramatically. Studies have found that experience casting mail ballots tends to correlate with lower rates of rejection, and that younger voters and voters of color are more likely in some cases to see their mail ballots invalidated.
These findings are critical as voters make plans for how to cast their ballots this year.
Nearly 200 million Americans are eligible to vote by mail in the general election, an unprecedented number that reflects changes aimed at making voting easier during the coronavirus pandemic. Millions are expected to embrace this option to protect their health, some for the first time.
But the process of casting a mail ballot can be complicated. Compared with in-person voting, it involves more steps and more opportunities for problems — including some outside the voter’s control.
You should start by either registering to vote or by checking to make sure your voter registration is current and your name and address are correct.
After that, here are six steps you can take to protect your vote while casting a mail ballot.
If you need to request your ballot, do it early.
In nine states and the District of Columbia, voters will receive ballots in the mail automatically, according to a Post tracker. Across the rest of the country, voters are required to ask for a mail ballot from election officials.
Ten states are making this step easier by automatically sending request forms in the mail. In the remaining 31 states, voters have to start the process themselves. Depending on the state, this can mean finding and submitting a request form or making the request through an online system.
Whatever method is available to you, election officials are asking voters to begin the process as soon as possible. That makes it more likely you will receive your ballot with plenty of time to return it.
Read the instructions, and seek clarification from election officials if you are confused.
Completing a mail ballot often involves more than selecting your preferred candidates. There can be a number of additional steps required to make your vote official, depending on the state, such as signing your name one or more times. If you live in a state with stricter rules, you might need a signature from one or two witnesses or a notary, along with information such as their printed name and address.
To guide voters through the steps where they live, election officials typically send instructions along with each mail ballot. It is important to read these instructions carefully to make sure you do not miss something or make a mistake.
If you are confused about how to complete your ballot, contact your local election official, who is often the county or city clerk. Their office can walk you through what to do.
If you must sign your name, learn about signature matching.
Most voters will be asked to sign their name at least once to complete their mail ballot. Depending on the state, that signature could determine whether your vote counts.
That’s because some states verify your ballot by matching the signature to one or more signatures on file with the government, such as the signature on your driver’s license. In some cases, they use the signature from your original voter registration form, even if it is years or decades old. This can create a risk of rejection for people whose signatures have evolved over time.
To make sure your ballot is not rejected because of a false mismatch, find out the rules where you live. If a matching signature is required, sign your name while keeping in mind that election officials may be comparing it with an old signature. If you sign with your initials but your signature on file contains your full name, your ballot might not be counted.
Avoid stray marks, tears and other accidental flubs that could disqualify your ballot.
To give your ballot the best possible chance of counting, it’s important to return it in pristine condition.
Do not stain or tear your ballot or the envelope. Be sure to follow the instructions about how to indicate your choice of candidates and what color ink to use. Outside the areas you were told to mark or sign, there should be no stray writing or marks. Some of these rules date to the 1800s, when a small alteration to a ballot could indicate that a voter was owed a payoff.
Once you’ve completed your ballot, make sure to follow the directions for placing it inside its envelope or paper sleeve. If there is an inner envelope, and the instructions tell you to seal it, do not forget. Do not use your own envelope to return a ballot.
Above all, if you think you made a mistake while filling out your ballot, do not try to fix it. Ask your local election office what to do — they might advise you to start fresh with a new ballot and help you get one.
Return your ballot as soon as possible. If you do not want to use the mail, there might be other options.
It is important to know the options for returning your ballot — as well as the deadline for returning it.
If you plan to mail it, attach postage if necessary and send it back with time to spare. If you do not want to use the mail, you might have other options, depending on where you live. Ask your local election official if there are ballot drop boxes available in your community or if you can return it in person at their office. Be aware that deadlines sometimes vary based on what method you decide to use.
Election officials and the U.S. Postal Service are advising voters to return their ballots early to ensure they are received in time for counting.
Seek reliable information about the process from election officials.
Rules for mail voting are complicated. They can vary, even within states, and have undergone dramatic changes this year.
Be wary of unverified “facts” about the voting process that have gone viral this year on social media, many of which may be inaccurate.
The people who run elections in your state, county or city are the best source of information about the voting process where you live. If you are confused at any point, seek answers on their websites, follow their official social media accounts or get in touch with them directly. Answering voters’ questions is part of their job, and they are responsible for making sure their communities have accurate information.