Six common ballot mistakes to be aware of when you vote

By Justin Cremer

October 15, 2020

With Election Day less than three weeks away, Americans across the country are already voting in record numbers. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more voters are opting to either vote early in-person to avoid big crowds on Nov. 3 or from the safety of their own homes using mail-in and/or absentee ballots. Early estimates predicted that as many as 70 percent of voters are likely to cast their ballots through the mail. Massive turnout at in-person early polling places indicates that number may not be as high as expected, particularly considering the concerns many voters have over the United States Postal Service’s (USPS) ability to deliver ballots on time. Still, regardless of how the final breakdown shakes out, it’s widely thought that mail-in ballots could reach an all-time high.

The increase in mail ballots is also likely to result in an increase of rejected votes. The US Election Assistance Commission reported that around one percent of the mail ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election were rejected, while NPR found that more than 550,000 mail-in ballots were rejected during this year’s primary elections. Younger voters are most likely to have their ballots rejected due to errors.

With that in mind, we take a look at some of the most common ballot mistakes that could keep your vote from being counted.

1. It arrives too late

One of the most common reasons mail-in ballots get rejected is that they simply arrive too late. The deadline for returning ballots through the mail varies by state, so one cannot assume that dropping a ballot in the mailbox on Tuesday, Nov. 3 is good enough. Only 19 states will accept ballots that are postmarked by Election Day. In 24 other states, the ballots must have reached the local election office by Election Day. With legitimate concerns about postal service delays, it is therefore very important to know your state’s deadline and to get your ballot in the mail with plenty of time to spare. The closer we get to Nov. 3, the more important it is to consider using another method, such as in-person early voting, secure ballot drop boxes or taking safety precautions to vote on Election Day.

2. It’s missing a postmark

If you live in a state that accepts ballots that are postmarked by Election Day, you may unfortunately run into a newly-discovered problem. According to a report from the USPS inspector general, hundreds of mail-in ballots in Wisconsin’s primary election did not receive postmarks — the dated stamps applied to envelopes by the USPS. A similar problem was identified in New York’s primary election, NPR reported. While state officials are now aware of this potential issue and vowing to address it, you can take matters into your own hands by visiting your local post office and requesting that your ballot be postmarked by hand.

3. It’s not filled out correctly

Filling out a ballot isn’t exactly rocket science. Still, it is incredibly important that you carefully read the instructions that accompany it. Some states may specify that only a certain color of ink can be used and will give explicit instructions for how to mark the ballot. It’s also important that you don’t make extra marks on your ballot, that you only vote for the specified number of candidates in each race, sign it using the same name you’re registered under and that you don’t attempt to scratch out a mistake. If you make a ballot selection in error, should you contact your local election office to request a new one or simply print a new copy if you live in a state that sends absentee ballots digitally.

4. It’s missing a signature

Forgetting to sign the affidavit on the envelope that contains your ballot is one of the most common reasons for rejection. One-fifth of the rejected ballots in 2016 were due to a missing signature. All states require a signature on the affidavit and some states may require additional signatures, such as on a secrecy waiver if voting electronically. Eleven states – Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin – require absentee ballots to either have notarized signatures or the signatures of one or more witness. Again, carefully read the instructions that accompany your ballot and give yourself amply time to deal with any onerous barriers.

5. The signature doesn’t match

A total of 31 states use some sort of signature verification as a means of confirming voter identity. Your state may compare voter signatures to other signatures it has on file (your driver’s license or voter registration application, for example). Advocates of expanding voting rights have long contended that signature matching rules discriminate against the elderly or people with disabilities, but there is also growing concern that younger and first-time voters are also caught up by signature matching rules.

“Young people use one signature when they register to vote, and then they go off to college, become very creative, and their signature changes,” Kathleen Unger, the founder of the nonprofit VoteRiders, told Business Insider.

The comedian John Oliver also recently took on the issue of non-matching signatures, arguing that “we all have at least two signatures: The real one and your coffee shop signature, which is usually just a line and, depending on your mood, a couple of loop-the-loops.”

So be cognizant of the way you sign your ballot. Although many states are required to notify voters if there is a signature discrepancy, now is not the time to try out a new artsty-fartsy way of signing your name.

6. The ballot is “naked” or otherwise lacking something

Most of us had probably never heard the term “naked ballots” before a Pennsylvania court recently ruled that the state would reject ballots that are not enclosed within their required secrecy envelope. With Pennsylvania seen as one of the states most likely to swing the presidential contest, these “naked ballots” could become a major factor.

In addition to the “naked ballots” and the aforementioned notary and/or witness signatures, other supplementary documentation can be required that, if not provided, will invalidate a ballot. For example, more than a dozen states require voters to include a copy of photo ID with their ballots.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is important to:

  • Carefully read the instructions that come with your ballot and provide all additional documentation that is required
  • Allow plenty of time if voting by mail and consider other options the closer we get to Election Day
  • Fill out your ballot neatly and sign your name as you normally do
  • Consult non-partisan sources like to get your questions answered
  • Most importantly of all, just VOTE!

Photo: A poll worker processes ballots during Nevada’s primary election in June. Trevor Bexon/Shutterstock