A woman standing in front of other protesters holding signs wears a gray shirt and a black face mask that says "Get in Good Trouble" on it and holds a white homemade cardboard sign that says "Count Every Vote" in black letters, with the words, "Democracy, Baby!" and "With love, Philadelphia XOXO" in smaller read letters.
Anti-Trump voters hold a dance party and demand that every ballot be counted outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center where mail in ballots were being counted to determine the winner of the 2020 Presidential election in the state on Nov. 5, 2020, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Thousands of Americans will lose their right to vote in this year’s midterm elections over mistakes like forgetting a signature or putting down the wrong date on paperwork for mail voting. 

Most states don’t offer voters an opportunity to correct — or “cure” — absentee ballots after submission. And a surge in mail voting in the COVID-19 pandemic era increases the likelihood that ballot curing issues could have a meaningful impact on some election results.

The issue disproportionately impacts voters of color because of their heavy use of voting by mail, and things like subjective signature matching requirements that can be affected by bias at the local level.

Administrative errors, such as writing the incorrect date on vote-by-mail return envelopes or forgetting to sign your name, can result in ballots being thrown out. Advocates have urged state and local officials to provide some kind of ballot curing process to prevent this kind of disenfranchisement.

Absentee voting was record-breakingly popular in 2020 and was more likely to be used by Democrats. In response, Republicans have fought against wider access to mail-in ballots in state legislatures and through lawsuits. In states such as Pennsylvania, they’ve fought to have ballots with even minor errors thrown out and have opposed any kind of ballot curing process for voters who make such mistakes.

Research shows rejection rates significantly decrease when voters are given the opportunity to correct ballots with administrative deficiencies, thus letting more voters contribute to the democratic process. 

“Pretty consistently, data shows that certain numbers of voters would not have their absentee or mail ballots counted if it weren’t for ballot cure,” Jose Altamirano, a policy graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School, told NPR. “If the state you live in has a more stringent set of hoops to jump through to cast your ballot, the more likely it is that your ballot will be rejected.” 

Georgia and North Dakota, for example, recently implemented ballot curing laws in response to high rates of rejected ballots in previous elections. Vermont has reduced its rejection rate by having local election officials reach out personally to voters. Colorado allows problems to be corrected via text message.

High rejection rates without ballot curing

Arkansas, a state that has enacted a slew of voting restrictions that disenfranchise voters of color, had the highest absentee ballot rejection rate during the 2020 general election by a landslide: 6.4% of Arkansas’ mail-in ballots were rejected, followed by New Mexico at 5%. Election officials aren’t required to notify voters if they’ve made an error.

Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana required two methods of verification when submitting absentee ballots in 2020: a signature match and/or witness requirement, on top of another level of verification. Without the opportunity to cure ballots, Mississippi (2.3%) and Louisiana (1.4%) saw high rates of rejection.

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

More than 4.5% of ballots cast in Alaska’s June special election were thrown out. In rural parts of the state, it was about three times that. Barriers with language and broadband internet posed severe problems for Alaskan voters, particularly those living in rural areas. 

Pennsylvania doesn’t have a statewide law requiring ballot curing, but the state’s high court has rejected Republicans’ argument that it shouldn’t be allowed at all. It recently ruled ballot curing can be a county-by-county decision, though court battles are likely to continue. 

This week, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled state officials can’t count absentee votes with incorrect dates on their return envelopes. In this year’s primaries, several counties wouldn’t certify mail-in ballots with missing dates. 

Dr. Mehmet Oz won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania earlier this year by only 951 votes. He opposed counting about 850 undated ballots in that race. 

The state has also debated rejecting “naked” ballots, which have been completed but are missing the outer secrecy envelope. 

Rejection rate drops in ballot curing states

Colorado launched TXT2Cure in October 2020, allowing voters to cure mismatched signatures simply using their phones. Voters can text the word “COLORADO” to a specific number, which will prompt them to sign the screen of their cell phone or take a photo of an acceptable ID. 

This July, a federal court expanded New York’s mail-in voting notice and cure procedures, following major problems with absentee ballots in 2020 marking the state as having the third-highest ballot rejection rate in the nation. 

In 2020, the state rejected “uncurable” ballots — meaning the voter wasn’t given a chance to fix the problem — even though the state had notice and cure procedures in place. The ballots were rejected for issues that weren’t connected to voter eligibility, such as missing a signature, writing an incorrect date or forgetting a required inner envelope. 

Georgia added notice and cure policies in March 2020, resolving a lawsuit saying nearly 3% of mail-in votes in the 2018 general election were not counted. In the 2020 general election, after the new law went into place, 0.4% of absentee ballots were rejected. 

North Dakota implemented notice and cure policies for the first time in its June 2020 primary election, entirely conducted by mail. Because of the new policy, over 58% of ballots flagged for mismatched signatures were counted, and the number of rejections for mismatched signatures decreased by 20%, according to the Campaign Legal Center

New voting restrictions complicate curing

Other states — like Arizona, Nevada and Utah — allow ballot curing, though recent legislation has shortened how much time voters have to correct their ballots. 

Plus, voters in Arizona who forget to sign mail-in ballots aren’t legally entitled to cure them after Election Day, a federal appeals court ruled in December.

Texas allows ballot curing, though S.B.1 — a law passed in 2021 that advocates say makes voting much more difficult — caused a significant increase in absentee ballot rejections during 2022 primary elections, especially impacting voters of color. 
“It is important to note that these S.B.1-related racial disparities compounded over the primary: nonwhite voters were less likely than white voters to obtain a mail ballot because their applications were rejected at much higher rates, and when they were able to obtain one, they were much more likely to have their ballot rejected,” wrote Kevin Morris and Coryn Grange for the Brennan Center for Justice.

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Kimberly Cataudella is the 2020 American University Fellow working on the data team while completing...