Study Finds Young Voters More Likely to Have Mail Ballots Rejected

Isaac Brito opens and flattens mail-in ballots at the Santa Clara Registrar of Voters on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Young voters are more likely to have their mail ballots rejected than older voters, according to a study out Monday examining voting in Sacramento, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in the 2018 general election.

The research published by the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation highlights one of the greatest challenges for California's shift towards expanded vote-by-mail this election: the number of ballots that are returned, but not counted because they were mailed too late or lacked an accurate voter signature.

"One of the big changes of vote-by-mail is it shifts the responsibility for getting it right when we vote from the poll worker to the voter," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

Beginning next month, California counties will mail every voter a ballot, and many counties are choosing to offer fewer in-person voting opportunities than in years past due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There's no evidence that expanding vote-by-mail will lead to widespread voter fraud, as vote-by-mail critics like President Trump have asserted.

But as many states shift to vote-by-mail to avoid the spread of coronavirus at the polls, ballot rejections are a growing concern. An NPR analysis found a sharp increase in the number of rejected ballots in the 2020 primaries compared to levels in 2016. In California's March primary, more than 100,000 ballots were rejected.

"The problem of ballot rejection is evidence of the fact that we don't have widespread fraud," Alexander said. "Ballots that aren't postmarked by Election Day don't get counted. People who forget to sign their envelopes, those ballots don't get counted. Ballot rejection is evidence of the fact that we have election security."

The California Voter Foundation study found an average of 1.7% of vote-by-mail ballots were rejected each election over the last decade.

The study focused on rejected ballots in three northern California counties during the 2018 midterm election. That year, Sacramento and San Mateo counties mailed a ballot to all registered voters, while Santa Clara county sent ballots to voters who signed up to vote-by-mail.

As Sacramento and San Mateo counties shifted to mailing every voter a ballot, they saw a corresponding spike in the number of ballots rejected.

Young voters were especially likely to have their ballots left uncounted: Rejection rates for 18- to 24-year-olds in the counties were three times higher than the overall rejection rates.

In San Mateo, 3.5% of ballots cast by 18- to 24-year-olds were rejected, compared to 1.0% for all of the county's voters. In Santa Clara County, young voters accounted for just 7.4% of vote-by-mail voters, but 25.5% of rejected ballots.

"Young voters have several factors working against them: They are new to voting, they are less familiar with using the U.S. mail and they're not accustomed to using a signature," Alexander said. "And all of those are really important factors when you want to cast a vote-by-mail ballot."

Newly registered voters also had their ballots rejected at higher rates in all three counties.

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The top reasons for rejection were lateness and ballot signatures that were either missing, or didn't match the signature on file.

Lateness was the cause of 85% of ballot rejections for young voters in San Mateo County, and 79% of ballot rejections for young voters in Santa Clara County.

Those findings track with data from the secretary of state's office, which tallied rejected ballots in all 58 counties during the March primary. Two-thirds of rejections among all voters were due to late ballots.

There are a variety of explanations for why ballots were rejected for lateness. They could have been mailed after Election Day or placed in mailboxes late on Election Day and not postmarked until the next day. Even ballots mailed and postmarked on time would not have been counted if they arrived more than three days after the election.

This year, the window for counties to receive ballots has been extended to 17 days to account for any delays in the U.S. Postal Service.

The report's authors urged voters to use county drop-off sites in the last few days of the election, as nearly all the tardy ballots examined in the study were delivered by U.S mail.

“Voters who want to vote closer to Election Day should return their ballots in person to a drop box, voting site or their county election office,” said Cathy Darling Allen, the registrar of voters in Shasta County, and a California Voter Foundation board member, in a statement.

In Sacramento, the leading cause of rejection was issues with voter signatures.

The signature that voters scrawl on the envelope of a completed mail ballot must match the signature in the voter file — typically the same signature found on the back of a voter's drivers license.

Nearly half of the ballot rejections among young voters in Sacramento were the result of a mismatched signature, while 9.1% of ballots were returned with no signature at all.

Unlike ballots rejected for lateness, mail ballots with signature issues can be corrected and counted. More than half of the ballots with initial signature issues in the three-county study were corrected after counties reached out to affected voters, avoiding rejection.

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Santa Clara County election officials saw a jump in their signature correction, or "cure" rate, after they began sending voters a second notice if their ballot signature had an issue.

"We found that when we sent out the form, it does get ignored," said Pam Hamilton, election process supervisor for Santa Clara County. "So we started resending ones to the voters that did not reply. We found that after the second mailing, we started to get their attention."

The signature correction process should be easier in 2020, with state law now requiring that all counties contact voters with missing and mismatched signatures and allow the voter a chance to submit a new signature in time for the vote to be counted.

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