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Mail-in ballot rejection rate could cast doubt over election results

Mail-in ballot rejection rate could cast doubt over election results
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In the 2020 general election, more Americans will vote by mail than ever before.

Some states, such as California, have mailed so-called unsolicited ballots to all registered voters. Meanwhile, many others have expanded absentee ballot eligibility requirements.

One way or another, millions of Americans will vote via mail this fall, which could create a nightmare scenario in which the election outcome could be in flux weeks after Election Day.

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There are many reasons why mail-in ballots are unreliable. One of the most significant is that mail-in ballots are often rejected.

In New York, which used mail-in ballots during its primary elections this spring, 21 percent of ballots were rejected because of errors.

In Pennsylvania, the same scenario played out, with more than 20 percent of mail-in ballots rejected due to voter error.

According to a recent NPR analysis, “An extraordinarily high number of ballots — more than 550,000 — have been rejected in this year's presidential primaries … That's far more than the 318,728 ballots rejected in the 2016 general election and has raised alarms about what might happen in November when tens of millions of more voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail, many for the first time.”

Making matters more ominous, NPR reports that these figures are likely an underestimate because many states have not yet reported their rejection numbers for primary elections.

Unbeknownst to many, mail-in voting is not as simple as it sounds. Each state has different rules when it comes to casting mail-in ballots. Some require multiple witnesses. Others require the ballot be notarized. For many voters, adhering to the labyrinth of instructions that accompany a mail-in ballot is just too difficult.

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As the NPR analysis explains, “the rejection numbers are only part of the picture … they don't always take into account mail-in ballots that are initially accepted but then not counted because of other mistakes, such as a voter incorrectly choosing too many candidates or incorrectly circling a candidate's name instead of filling in the bubble next to it.”

In other words, even if a ballot is accepted initially, it can be rejected later for a host of reasons.

The outsized rejection rate for mail-in ballots could have massive implications, especially in battleground states. In many battleground states in the 2016 election, the margin of victory was razor thin.

For instance, in the 2016 election, four states were decided by less than a percentage point. In 2020, with massive mail-in voting, any state that is not a landslide for either candidate will likely be called into question due to mail-in vote counting concerns.

Moreover, this is likely to result in a series of lawsuits that call electoral returns into question.

“For their part, Democrats are pushing widespread mail-in voting but are also concerned that many of their voters' ballots could be rejected if the rules aren't relaxed,” reports NPR. “They're in court in more than half the states fighting to extend mail-in ballot deadlines and to waive witness and notary requirements. They also want voters to be given the opportunity to fix errors before their ballots are rejected.”

This is a recipe for disaster. With the massive onslaught of mail-in ballots that will overwhelm local elected officials on Election Day and beyond, simply counting unrejected ballots will be a tall task.

Then the legal battle will ensue. Imagine a scenario in which we have no clear winner on or shortly after Election Day due to a myriad of lawsuits challenging rejected or unrejected mail-in ballots.

In 2000, it took more than a month before the Supreme Court finally declared the winner of one disputed state, Florida, by a five to four ruling in Bush v. Gore.

In 2020, we could have more than a score of states with disputed returns that would have to be decided ultimately by the Supreme Court.

And with the nomination of Amy Coney Barret still in flux, the ultimate worst-case-scenario could be a four to four tie.

Barring a landslide victory by either candidate on Election Day, the 2020 election could put the United States in dangerous waters.

As we have all witnessed, the country is already teeming with division and distrust. A disputed election due to mail-in voting malfeasance could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

In more than 230 years, the United States has never had an election result rejected by the people. But with a torrent of mail-in ballots that will throw a huge wrench into the validity of ballot counting, this could the first time that the United States experiences the crisis of a disputed election.

Chris Talgo (ctalgo@heartland.org) is an editor at The Heartland Institute.