What is a newsletter “cure”? How voters can correct their ballots: NPR

In this 2020 file photo, an election official sorts mail-in ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections in Doral, Florida. Florida is one of about half of the U.S. states that have ballot hardening provisions.

Lynn Sladky/AP

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Lynn Sladky/AP

In this 2020 file photo, an election official sorts mail-in ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections in Doral, Florida. Florida is one of about half of the U.S. states that have ballot hardening provisions.

Lynn Sladky/AP

Many Americans are not familiar with how elections are conducted. And in recent years, disseminators have taken advantage of this lack of knowledge to cast doubt on certain aspects of the voting process.

In response, NPR’s polling team offers a series of explanations on some of these election topics. This is the first. You can find all our stories here.

During major U.S. elections, hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots are routinely thrown away and left uncounted. In 2020, for example, more than 560,000 ballots were rejected (that’s nearly 1% of the total).

Experts say ballot rejections are largely the result of relatively minor voter errors, often related to security measures designed to verify a voter’s identity.

That’s why about half of states have a process in place to help voters correct their mail-in ballots if they make a mistake. It is known as bulletin treatment.

To Wang, a fellow in democracy at the Harvard Kennedy School, says the 20 or so states without a due process leave their voters without much recourse if there’s a problem with their ballot.

“The vote of someone who is an absolutely legitimate voter will not be counted because of what is usually just a technical error,” she says.

Jose Altamirano, a graduate student in politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, says states that have a process, however, have significantly lower rates of rejected mail-in ballots.

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“Pretty consistent data shows that a certain number of voters would not have their absentee or mail-in ballots counted if it weren’t for the voting remedy,” he says.

In general, Altamirano says, states with a treatment process, ballot tracking and more accessible ballot dropout policies tend to reject a lower percentage of ballots in each election. But “if the state you live in has a more rigorous set of hoops to jump through to vote, the more likely your ballot will be rejected,” he says.

Republican lawmakers, who are pushing for stricter rules on mail-in voting across the country, say those restrictions prevent fraud, although documented cases of voter fraud remain extremely rare.

Why ballots are rejected

Voters make mistakes. Ballots are often not returned by the state-mandated deadline. But Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, says many voters are also tripped up by mail-in voting requirements.

Depending on where you live, your state may require you to provide a signature that matches the one on file, voter identification information such as a driver’s license, or a date.

She says all these “little checks” are opportunities for human error.

Plus, says Albert, voting at home means you’re on your own for the most part.

“You don’t have a poll worker there who can answer your questions or refer you to someone else who can help,” she says. “You’re just alone at your kitchen table.”

Sometimes, Albert says, voters completely skip the field of providing their personal information or their signature. Other times, election officials have difficulty checking ID numbers or signatures against what’s in their system.

Phil Keisling, president of the National Home Voting Institute and former Oregon secretary of state, says that’s mostly because “voter signatures change” over time.

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“They may have signed years ago when they were young, they may have changed their signature, they may have had a health problem,” he says.


Also, there’s a lot of variety in how to tell if your ballot has been rejected.

Many states allow you to track your ballot with an online portal that shows you when your ballot was received and then processed. These sites will often notify you if your newsletter is rejected. Sometimes it will give a reason why.

But for the most part, voters are contacted directly by local election officials if their ballot has been rejected. This can be a letter or a call. Or in some cases, like Colorado, local officials may have a text message program to alert voters.

Some voters don’t have access to landlines, don’t check their mail often, or simply don’t have constant access to the Internet.

That’s why, says Harvard’s Altamirano, how you know there’s a problem with your ballot depends on who your local clerk is and where you live. He says some employees simply look up a number, mailing address or email address on file and send a notification that way — without checking to see if that contact information is up-to-date.

“Whereas in some other counties, local election officials did much more to reach out to voters — including trying to find them on social media to connect with them,” Altamirano recalled.

Common Cause’s Albert says it also depends on what it allows local officials to do when trying to reach voters.

“Some of that is set in state law,” Albert says, “and some legislatures aren’t really interested in giving election officials more leeway to reach those voters.”

Bulletin correction schedule

If you live in a state that has a voting process, how much time you have depends on where you live.

Some states set a strict deadline tied to Election Day. So if you turn in your ballot close to Election Day, it is unlikely that you will be able to cure your ballot in time.

Other states give you a day or two after Election Day to correct your ballot; others give voters much more time. For example, Washington state gives voters up to 21 days after Election Day to correct their signature if there are problems.

Depending on where you live, you may need to either submit an entirely new ballot or send in some kind of statement or affidavit letting officials know that the ballot is actually yours.

Who you are also matters

Experts say one notable factor that influences ballot rejection has to do with who you are.

Harvard’s Wang says a number of studies have found a disproportionate impact when it comes to rejecting mail-in ballots.

“People of color and young people are more likely to have their ballots rejected than others,” she says. “And so especially for those groups that are already marginalized in the process in many ways, it’s very important to give them the opportunity to have their ballots counted.”

Even in states with lower ballot rejection rates, non-English speaking ballots are also more likely to be rejected than other voters.

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