By Stuart A. Thompson
Every eligible vote should be counted. But already in this election, more than 7,700 ballots have been challenged and face rejection in North Carolina. In Florida, that number is 11,900.
The sheer number of votes potentially getting tossed caught me by surprise, even though I’ve been following election data with an obsessive eye as head of Opinion’s visual journalism department.
These votes are often flagged because the signature on the mail-in ballot doesn’t quite match the one election officials have on file. That’s enough in some states — typically ones controlled by Republicans — to reject the ballot entirely, sometimes without even giving voters a chance to fix the problem.
It’s just one risk Democrat voters are facing right now. Since polls heavily favor Joe Biden, Republicans have focused on using new and existing “election integrity” laws to eliminate left-leaning votes.
I feel comfortable singling out Republicans here for a few reasons. First, we know exactly which votes are rejected under laws like signature matching: those from younger voters, nonwhite voters and first-time voters. These voting blocs are more likely to make innocent mistakes when completing their ballots, and they’re all more likely to support Democrats.
We also know that Republicans keep fighting legal challenges that would make voting easier, especially during the pandemic. In many states, if your ballot is rejected, you’re able to fix it through a process called “curing.” But that’s not an option in states like Tennessee. Voting rights groups there went to court to try to give voters the chance to fix their ballots before they’re rejected outright. Republicans fought hard to keep the law in place. They won.
“While I am saddened, I am not surprised by today’s ruling,” wrote Judge Karen Nelson Moore in her dissent. She added that many federal courts have “sanctioned a systematic effort to suppress voter turnout and undermine the right to vote.”
We’re told these restrictive laws guard against voter fraud. But that’s a problem so small and insignificant that only a handful of cases are recorded each election. And there are less restrictive safeguards already in place, like the voter registration system.
President Trump raised the threat of votes being tossed away to sow doubt about the election. But the laws themselves are the threat we should all be focusing on. In states with restrictive laws, they’re tossing away thousands of legitimate votes from well-meaning voters. And they’re doing it with the consent of the courts.
Rejected ballots normally amount to a sliver of the total. But this year, more people are expected to vote by mail than ever. In down-ballot races especially, every vote matters. (Consider that in 2018, Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, won by just 10,033 votes — more than the number of challenged votes the state has seen this year so far.)
We’ve published the first in a new series of visual opinion stories we’re calling “Contested.” This election isn’t just a battle for votes, but a battle to have those votes counted. The first piece in the package covers all the ways your ballot could be rejected. Soon we’ll also look at how a close election could be challenged and how bad ballot designs make it harder to vote, among other issues.