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NPR Analysis: Thousands Of Mail-In Ballots Rejected For Arriving Too Late


With tens of millions of voters expected to mail in their ballots this November, more attention is being paid to potential hurdles. One is a requirement in most states that ballots be received by Election Day even if they get delayed in the mail. An NPR survey has found that at least 65,000 primary ballots have been rejected so far this year because they arrived too late. The issue could prove decisive on Election Day, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: White absentee ballots strung like clothes drying on a line flapped in the breeze outside the Montclair, N.J., town hall this month while a group of protesters wearing masks shouted, count every vote.

SUSAN MACK: We stretched almost the entire block, and it was really powerful.

FESSLER: Susan Mack of the local League of Women Voters said the pieces of paper represented 1,100 mail-in ballots that were rejected in the city's mayoral election in May, mostly for arriving late. Mack said it was a big disappointment for voters who thought they had followed the rules.

MACK: They got the vote by mail. They filled out the vote by mail. They mailed the vote-by-mail ballot, and then they didn't get counted. And it just breaks my heart. You know, this is what democracy is about.

FESSLER: It also might have made a difference because the new mayor won by only 195 votes. What happened in Montclair could be a sign of what's to come this fall. Already this year, tens of thousands of ballots have been rejected due to errors such as mismatched signatures and missed deadlines. Charles Stewart of MIT says those who use mail-in voting for the first time, as well as younger voters and minorities, are the most likely to have their ballots discarded.

CHARLES STEWART: So that's the sort of thing that makes me wary about what's going to happen in November, when we get an even larger influx of people who haven't voted or haven't voted by mail in the past.

FESSLER: And the political parties know there's a lot at stake. They're in court right now, trying to shape the rules for the general election.

KIRK NIELSEN: It took 11 days for my ballot to get a postmark then five more days for it to at least get stamped as arrived.

FESSLER: Kirk Nielsen doesn't know why that happened, just that his Florida ballot was rejected in 2018 for being late. He's a plaintiff in one of the many lawsuits filed by Democrats and voting rights groups challenging state deadlines. They want ballots to be counted as long as they're postmarked by Election Day. Nielsen says he's worried about being disenfranchised again.

NIELSEN: I think there's an even greater risk this year voting by mail and that my mail-in ballot might not be counted.

FESSLER: In fact, NPR found that some states rejected between 1 and 5% of their mail in primary ballots this year for being late, including more than 15,000 ballots in Pennsylvania and 8,000 in Georgia. The numbers might be small, but they're big enough to make a difference in a close election, which is why the political parties are fighting so hard in court.

MANDI MERRITT: We believe an election day exists for a reason.

FESSLER: Mandi Merritt is national press secretary for the Republican National Committee, which wants to preserve the existing deadlines.

MERRITT: Allowing massive amounts of ballots to arrive or the counting to continue well after Election Day really allows room for fraud. It allows losing candidates or other partisan operatives to go find more late votes that could potentially change the legitimate outcome of an election.

FESSLER: Most election officials would dispute her claim that candidates can just, quote, "find more late votes" to change the results. But Merritt says even the possibility or appearance of fraud would undermine voters' confidence. Katie Hobbs, Arizona's Democratic Secretary of State, is more worried about voter confusion if the deadlines are extended so close to the election. She says such changes can be complicated. Ballots in Arizona and elsewhere don't always get postmarked.

KATIE HOBBS: Making sure that that, like, gets a postmark on it would require the voter to get out of their car, go into the post office and ask for it to be postmarked. And that is just a whole other layer of information that we would have to provide people.

FESSLER: So for now, the state is encouraging voters to use secure drop boxes where they can leave their ballots off without going into either a polling place or the post office. For its part, the Postal Service says voters should mail their ballots in at least a week in advance if they want to get them in on time no matter what the deadlines end up being this fall.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.