More than 550,000 mail or absentee ballots were rejected in the 2020 primaries, according to a new National Public Radio analysis. That is much more than the 318,728 ballots rejected in the 2016 general election. The two main causes were late-arriving ballots and problems with signatures.
Here are six policy options legislatures recently considered to address the lessons learned from this year’s primaries. They no doubt will be ripe for consideration in 2021 legislative sessions as well.
1. Application Deadlines. Election officials usually need to receive absentee ballot applications a week or more before the election to give voters enough turnaround time to receive them and mail them back. To date, 22 states’ application deadlines fall fewer than seven days before the election, 13 states’ deadlines fall seven days before the election, and 10 states’ deadlines are more than seven days before the election. The Postal Service recommends that voters request ballots no later than 15 days before the election, and that they mail their completed ballots back at least one week before Election Day. This year, Massachusetts and New Mexico enacted legislation temporarily moving back the deadline to request absentee ballots, and similar legislation is pending in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
2. Ballot Drop Boxes. The most popular option for voters to return their absentee/mail ballots without relying on the mail has been the use of drop boxes. At least 24 states permit them, though many are deployed at the local level. While most decisions on drop boxes have been made without legislation, nine states have laws establishing security criteria for them. This year, Nevada and New Jersey enacted laws regarding drop boxes, and legislation is pending in New York.
3. Ballot Collection. One state requires voters to return their own absentee ballot. Ten states allow a family member to return a ballot, and 26 states allow voters to designate someone to return their ballot. Thirteen states are silent on the issue. Among the 26 states where voters can designate someone to return their ballot, 12 have placed limits on the number of ballots a person can collect and return. Returning ballots for others is known pejoratively as “ballot harvesting,” based on the concern that saving people the task of returning their ballots can bleed into encouraging them to vote a certain way. Legislation to restrict ballot collection has been enacted this year in Oklahoma and Utah, and a similar bill is pending in New York.
4. Ballot Receipt/Postmark Deadlines. The most common state deadline for the receipt of absentee or mail ballots is on Election Day before the polls close. At least 18 states, however, will accept ballots after Election Day if they are postmarked on or before Election Day, though this number may be unusually high due to temporary changes. Deadlines to return ballots vary from the day before the election in Louisiana to up to 14 days after Election Day in Illinois and Utah. Mississippi and New York extended the deadline for postmarked ballots to be received past Election Day, and similar legislation is pending in Michigan.
5. Ballot Processing. In many states, processing absentee ballots—checking signatures, opening envelopes, removing and smoothing out ballots, stacking them and even possibly running them through a scanner—begins as they are received, so they are ready to be counted as soon as the law allows after the polls close. This speeds up the reporting of election results. At least 34 states allow ballots to be processed in some form before Election Day, though this number may be higher due to temporary changes. Connecticut, Michigan, New Hampshire and New Jersey have enacted legislation to allow ballots to be processed prior to Election Day this year.
6. Signature Cure Periods. Nineteen states require that voters be notified when there is a missing signature or signature discrepancy and be given an opportunity to correct, or “cure,” it. In states without such a process, ballots with missing or mismatched signatures are not counted. New York has enacted legislation this year to implement a signature cure process.
There’s no doubt we will learn more about how to successfully conduct mail-in voting next month. Many will be watching.
Brian Hinkle is a research analyst in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.