Fewer absentee ballots rejected after Georgia laws change

August 11, 2020 Atlanta: Some 70 Fulton County Registration & Election Board workers handled about 20,000 absentee ballots on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 at State Farm Arena located at 1 State Farm Drive in Atlanta. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Absentee ballot rejections declined sharply in Georgia’s primary, with ballots being delivered after election day as the most common reason votes went uncounted, according to numbers reported to the state by counties.

Georgia election data from 122 of 159 counties show absentee ballots were less likely this year to be discarded because of mismatched signatures and missing information, a result of a simplified ballot envelope and a requirement that voters be notified so they can fix issues.

In all, election officials rejected at least 11,433 absentee-by-mail ballots, about 1% of the record 1.15 million absentees cast in Georgia’s primary.

That’s a lower rejection rate than in the 2018 general election, when 3% of absentees weren’t counted, according to comparable data from that year. Most local election offices report ballot rejection numbers to the secretary of state’s office, but it isn’t required.

Nationwide, election officials rejected over 500,000 absentee ballots during primaries this year, according to counts by The Washington Post and NPR. About 2% of absentee ballots were rejected in 24 states that provided data this year, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who runs the United States Elections Project.

The decrease in Georgia absentee ballot rejections came after court rulings and changes to state law following close 2018 elections for governor and the 7th Congressional District.

After Election Day, a judge ruled that absentee ballots must be counted even if a voter’s date of birth was incorrect or missing from ballot envelopes. Then a few months later, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill that eliminated the requirement for voters to write in their birth years or addresses on ballot envelopes, instead only mandating their signatures.

In addition, a court settlement earlier this year called for quick notification to voters when their ballots are rejected, giving them time to correct problems with their absentee ballots.

“The process for absentee ballot verification really changed after 2018,” said Kristi Royson, elections supervisor in Gwinnett County. “The new law is definitely an improvement. The voter gets a chance to cure it. It’s a lot better for the voter and the election officials.”

Gwinnett rejected more than one-fifth of Georgia’s total number of rejected ballots two years ago. In this year’s primary, Gwinnett turned away 12% of all absentee ballots rejections reported, a rate more in line with its share of the state’s population.

Absentee ballots can be rejected for several reasons: late returns, missing or invalid signatures, lack of voter identification on file, and ineligibility of voters.

By far the most common reason absentee ballots didn’t count was that they were received through the mail at county election offices after the state’s deadline of 7 p.m. on June 9. Almost three-quarters of all rejected ballots, about 8,400, were returned late.

A federal judge recently extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be returned. U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross ruled that absentee ballots must be counted if they’re postmarked by Election Day and received within three days afterward. That decision is being appealed, creating the possibility that the previous deadline could be reinstated.

Incomplete data from Georgia counties leaves some uncertainty about which how many absentee ballots were thrown out in this year’s primary.

“We don’t really know how many ballots were rejected in Georgia. There’s concern that there might be higher rejection rates in counties that we don’t have data from," McDonald said. “Were all counties following the same procedures in the state? It’s pretty clear the answer to that is ‘no.'”

Fulton County didn’t report any rejections to the state for late-arriving absentee ballots, but a county elections official told Georgia Public Broadcasting in July the number was actually 951. Fulton reported 77 ballot rejections, all for missing signatures.

“Fulton County makes every effort to ensure that every absentee ballot is counted whenever possible,” said spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez. “We reach out to voters if they have not signed their ballots so they can come in to sign ballots in the allowed period.”

In Paulding County northwest of Atlanta, election officials didn’t report any absentee ballot rejections in the primary, according to state election data.

Paulding Elections Supervisor Deidre Holden said about 70 absentee ballots arrived after Election Day, and 47 people didn’t correct problems with their ballots such as missing or mismatched signatures.

“We want everybody’s votes to count. We do whatever we can to avoid rejecting ballots,” calling voters immediately when there’s an issue, Holden said. “Before we reject them, we look long and hard.”

Voters can save their absentee ballots from rejection by signing an affidavit swearing that they’re registered to vote and by providing a copy of their ID. The deadline to correct ballot problems is the Friday after Election Day.

Election officials are urging voters to make sure they sign their absentee ballot envelopes and return them well in advance of Election Day.

The sooner voters request and return their absentee ballots, the less likely they are to be rejected, the election data show. Voters can return absentee ballots by mail or in drop boxes set up in many counties.

Absentee ballot rejections in Georgia’s primary

Ballot received after deadline: 73%

Missing signature: 18%

Invalid signature: 8%

Missing ID/mail identification required: 0.4%

Ineligible elector: 0.1%

Total rejections: 11,433

Note: Rejections exclude voters who later cast ballots in person

Source: Georgia secretary of state’s office