In a small office on the first floor of the Sangamon County building in downtown Springfield, a team of three election judges pored over dozens of yellow ballot-certification envelopes on a recent morning.
The judges — two Republicans and one Democrat — checked the signatures on the envelopes against those in the county’s electronic voter database, comparing the swoop of an “S” that begins a last name or the curl that starts the “N” of a middle initial. After approving several signatures, the judges spotted a problem on an envelope.
“The signature that was on file was written, and this one was printed,” said Bob Teel, a Republican election judge. “So they didn’t match. So we had to reject it for non-matching signature.”
Teel clicked “Reject” in the computer database, turned the envelope over, and all three judges signed the back.
Every election, some mailed ballots are rejected due to voter error, most commonly for an issue with the voter’s signature or for being sent after the Election Day deadline. Already, more than a million Illinois voters opted to fill out their ballot at home for this November election — shattering records from previous elections but also raising concerns that ballot rejections could increase as well.
The number of ballot rejections in past Illinois elections has been relatively small, though there was an uptick in rejections in the March primary as COVID-19 took hold in the state. However, changes to how ballots are processed for the General Election, voter education efforts and the opportunity to fix some errors could keep rejections low, even as the number of mailed ballots soars.
Political observers are keeping a close eye on how rejected ballots in swing states could influence the outcome of the presidential race.
Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, said rejected ballots aren’t likely to determine the presidential race in a state as reliably blue as Illinois. But for a few tight congressional races or the vote to change the state’s income tax system, they could make a difference.
“Even with a pretty small proportion of rejected ballots, maybe they turn out to matter,” Gaines said.
More Rejections During Primary
In the General Election four years ago, around 376,000 Illinois voters took advantage of voting by mail, and nearly 6,000 of those ballots were rejected — less than 2% of mail-in ballots — according to data from the Illinois State Board of Elections. With approximately 5.6 million Illinoisans voting in the November 2016 election, rejections accounted for 0.1% of all ballots cast.
In the 2020 primary, mere days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, a higher proportion of voters opted to sit at home and fill out their ballots instead of risking a trip to a crowded polling place. The share of mail-in ballots rejected jumped to 5.5%, accounting for half of one percent of all ballots cast.
In the spring, rejected ballots numbered around 12,000 — about twice the ballot rejections statewide in 2016. An NPR analysis found a similar, nationwide trend in rejections during the primary.
An Illinois State Board of Elections spokesperson said the jump is likely related to the “last-minute nature” of people choosing to vote by mail in the primary, requesting ballots just days before the primary and then missing the deadline to send it in.
Gaines, the U of I political scientist, attributed the spike in ballot rejections in March in part to people being unfamiliar with the process.
“With a lot of people using a new method, I think you would expect this somewhat of an increase in the number of errors,” Gaines said.
Academic research of the 2016 and 2018 elections in Florida shows voters casting mail-in ballots for the first time are as much as three times more likely to make a mistake than those who’d already voted by mail in previous elections.
The number of vote-by-mail rejections in Illinois could rise because of the volume of ballots submitted. As of Wednesday, 1.3 million Illinoisans have voted by mail, far outpacing the record set two years ago, indicating many could be using this method for the first time.
But Gaines said new rules for processing ballots and voter education efforts could result in a lower percentage of rejections than in the primary.
“We've had time to think about that and try to get institutions in place. And it's been pretty substantial — the publicity about voting by mail,” Gaines said. “Maybe the education efforts will pay off.”
New Rules And Education Efforts
A new law passed by the General Assembly this spring expanded Illinois’ vote-by-mail program in the face of COVID-19. It instructed election authorities to send mail-in ballot applications to every voter in the previous three election cycles — an estimated 5 million Illinoisans. It also changed rules for how ballots are processed.
Previously, one judge or election authority employee could decide to throw out a ballot for signature problems, an unsealed envelope or missing the deadline. A panel of three judges would then handle any voter appeals.
Now, the updated law instructs three election judges — no more than two from a party — to review signatures and assume they match, unless all three agree otherwise. The change could cut down on the proportion rejected, specifically because the decision to reject a ballot based on a non-matching signature must be unanimous.
Teel, the Sangamon County election judge, said out of the hundreds they’ve processed, they’ve only objected to a handful.
“We try to approve as much as we can, if we can find any similarities,” Teel said.
Meanwhile, civic engagement nonprofits and election officials have spent the last few months explaining to voters how to vote by mail.
“The target number of rejected ballots should be zero, and so any increase is of concern,” said said Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois.
The group has held webinars and training sessions, encouraging people to vote by mail as a safe alternative during the coronavirus pandemic, discussing the timeline and giving advice about how to do it.
“One of the first things and the last thing that we tell you is, as soon as you get that ballot in the mail, fill it out and return it,” Young said.
Young said they’ve focused on populations who typically face barriers to voting, including communities of color, who have been hit hardest by COVID-19.
Reporting in North Carolina during the general election shows Black voters there are more likely to have their ballots thrown out than white voters. Similar analysis has not been done in Illinois.
The state board of elections does not track rejections in real time. Matt Dietrich, a spokesperson for the agency, pointed out that most ballots rejected before Election Day can be fixed and many are often rejected after Election Day if they aren’t sent on time.
The Chicago Board of Elections has processed 335,501 mail-in ballots so far, and rejected 1,024, according to data provided by a spokesperson. As of Tuesday, Sangamon County reported processing 26,391 ballots and rejecting 39.
If a ballot is late — that is postmarked or dropped off after Election Day — it’s outright rejected. But voters have a chance to fix other errors, a process called “curing” a ballot.
The notification comes by mail or email, so watch your mailbox after returning a ballot, said Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray.
By law, it’s a short timeline. Election authorities must process the ballot within two days of receiving it, and notify you within two more days if there are any errors.
Illinois is one of 18 states that allows voters to fix mistakes. Voters have until two weeks after Election Day to cure a ballot, more than almost any other state and a process that might delay results.
“If it was a non-matching signature, which I think will be the predominant one, or no signature at all, you need to give us a signature,” Gray said.
But Gray suggests making an effort to avoid problems in the first place.
“I can’t stress enough if you’ve made up your mind about who you want to vote for, mark your ballot, mail it back to us,” he said.
And, he adds, take time to sign the envelope carefully before you do.
As of Wednesday, 1 million Illinoisans had received their ballots, but not yet returned them.