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Despite mail voting changes, ballot rejections remain relatively low in 2022 midterms

Election workers process mail ballots for the midterm elections in Philadelphia on Nov. 8, 2022.
Matt Rourke
/
AP
Election workers process mail ballots for the midterm elections in Philadelphia on Nov. 8, 2022.

Updated January 13, 2023 at 2:43 PM ET

Hundreds of thousands of mail ballots were rejected across the country during the 2022 general election, according to a state-by-state analysis by NPR. That's about 1% of ballots that were returned to election officials, a rate similar to prior years.

The analysis, which drew primarily from states that track ballot rejections on a statewide basis, provides an incomplete picture. That's because many states don't track this information at the state level, and other states that do track ballot rejections statewide told NPR that their data were not ready to be shared.

For example, Illinois had shared data with NPR that showed a far higher rejection rate than other states'. When asked about it, Illinois officials initially retracted the data and reported Friday that they rejected 2.6% of returned mail ballots in the last election.

A federal report later this year will provide more data.

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The most common reasons why ballots were rejected remain the same as in past years — like not meeting the deadline to turn in a ballot, a signature not matching what's on a state's files or not providing the necessary signature or ID information at all.

Mail ballot rejection rates in the U.S. have hovered around 1% for the past few elections — including 2016, 2018 and 2020. And the rate of mail ballot rejections has stayed fairly consistent despite significant changes to state laws since 2020.

Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, says that since the beginning of the pandemic, voting by mail or absentee has become significantly more popular. In response, some states expanded access to mail in voting.

"What we also saw in 2020 was the demonization of vote by mail," Albert says. "This really affected state legislatures during the 2021 sessions. So, even though we saw a lot of states expand access, we saw other states restrict access."

She says that includes laws that set new limits on drop boxes, new ID requirements, as well as tighter deadlines for turning in a mail ballot.

In some cases, however, these new rules did lead to a sharp rise in ballot rejections. For example, after new ID requirements went into effect in Texas, the state had an unprecedented share of mail ballots rejected in the following election. During the state's March primary last year, more than 12% of mail ballots were rejected. The overwhelming share of those ballots were tossed out because voters completely missed the part of the return envelope that required a driver's license number or partial Social Security number. This was a stark increase from previous elections. In 2020, Texas had a 0.8% mail ballot rejection rate; in 2018 it was 1.7%.

During the 2022 general election, though, the statewide mail ballot rejection rate in Texas was 2.7% — higher than other states but far lower than the primaries. State officials attribute the drop to design changes to the ballot and efforts to educate voters.

Albert says that even if the percentage of mail ballots that are thrown out remains relatively small, there were still hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. "who tried to have their voices heard but were silenced" when their ballot was tossed out.

"We know that elections are getting closer," she said. "And we know that every small policy change actually can make a big difference — and a difference enough to flip an election."

Particularly in local races, Albert says, a few rejected ballots could have made a difference in the outcome of an election.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 12, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier version of this story had an inaccurate tally for mail ballots received in Washington state, and so also had an inaccurate rejection rate.
Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.