Why more than half a million 2020 election votes didn't count

According the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), 560,826 mail-in ballots were rejected in the 2020 presidential election. The EAC is a federal agency created in 2002 to track election administration in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. And it produces a post-election survey of state election results and procedures.

So more than half a million voters took the time to fill out and send in a mail-in ballot, and it was all for nothing.

In one sense, that’s a relatively small number. The EAC says 69, 560,318 mail-in ballots were counted — 98.8 percent of the mail-in ballots received in last November’s election. Only 0.8 percent of those received were rejected.

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And even though the number of 2020 mail-in ballots essentially doubled those in the previous presidential election, the percentage of rejected ballots remained the same. 

But still, half a million votes is a lot of people whose votes didn’t count.

I compared the number of rejected mail-in ballots to the vote difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in each state, since questionable practices in some states, especially Pennsylvania, have raised doubts about the validity of the Biden victory.

But even if all the rejected mail-in votes in each state had been awarded to the losing presidential candidate, that would have made no difference to the outcome of the presidential election in any state.

Even so, those rejected votes could have made the difference in some close state and local elections, which is why it’s important to consider what went wrong. 

The first thing to notice is that the results can vary significantly by state. 

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The average rejection was 0.8 percent of the mail-in ballots received. But 14 states had a 1.0 percent rejection rate or higher. The six states with the highest rejection rates were: Arkansas (6.4 percent), Illinois (1.7 percent), Mississippi (2.3 percent), New Mexico (5.0 percent), New York (3.6 percent) and Oklahoma (1.8 percent). So, three red states and three blue states were in the top six. [Note: The EAC survey recognizes some issues with the mail-in vote rejection counts in Ala., Ga., Kansas and Wis.]

The report also identifies the primary reasons some mail-in ballots were rejected. Non-matching signatures accounted for 32.8 percent; 13.5 percent were rejected because the voter already voted in person; 12.1 percent were not received by the specified date, and another 12.1 percent did not include a signature; and 5.6 percent did not include a required witness signature. 

Other reasons included: “the voter was not eligible to vote in the jurisdiction, the ballot was missing an important document (such as an affidavit or certification), the document was incomplete or insufficient, there were identifying marks on the ballot, the ballot was missing a secrecy envelope or was outside of the secrecy envelope.” 

Even those who did everything right and mailed their ballot in a timely manner may have been hampered by unintended errors at the post office, including missing postmarks and late delivery. 

Those rejected votes could have made the difference in certain close elections. For example, in the race for New York’s 22nd Congressional District, the Republican candidate was finally certified the winner by 109 votes on Feb. 8 — more than three months after the election.

There were legal challenges to a number of the of the mail-in votes, including whether the voter voted in the correct precinct, how the ballot was filled out and where it was dropped off. While the Republican finally prevailed, the vote count shifted back and forth over the three months. 

New York had a total of 66,746 rejected mail-in votes, 3.6 percent of the state’s mail-in total. Would the outcome have been different if some mail-in voters had been more careful?

Here’s the point: Voting in person for those who have the option (some states have all-mail voting), whether during early voting or on Election Day, is the safest way to ensure your vote is counted. There are poll watchers there to make sure voters are registered to vote in that district and complete the process successfully.  

Voting by mail is an important alternative for those who can’t make it to the polls to vote in person, but it’s the second-best option.

If you want to ensure you are not one those who end up wasting their time mailing in a ballot, vote in person.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.