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Despite More Absentee Ballots, NC’s 2020 Election Had Lower Rejection Rate

More than 1 million North Carolinians voted successfully using absentee by-mail ballots like these in the 2020 general election, with fewer ballots rejected than in previous elections.
Chris Miller
More than 1 million North Carolinians voted successfully using absentee by-mail ballots like these in the 2020 general election, with fewer ballots rejected than in previous elections.

This article is made possible through a partnership between WFAE and Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of our republishing policy.

North Carolina election officials knew there would be difficulties during the 2020 election, with the pandemic and a historic rise in absentee-by-mail voting. But new data show these obstacles didn’t lead to a higher rate of rejected mail ballots.

Turn back the clock to North Carolina’s primary in March 2020, and the rate of rejection for absentee-by-mail ballots was nothing to be proud of: 9.1%. It might have been seen as a bad omen for the general election in November.

But new data from the State Board of Elections show at most 2.4% of all absentee-by-mail ballots were rejected.

That number doesn’t mean each one of those voters didn’t end up voting successfully, and the true rejection rate could be lower. For example, a voter could have received a damaged ballot and called their county elections board to ask for a new one. The old ballot would still count as rejected, but the voter would receive a new ballot to vote.

In all, 993,648 absentee-by-mail ballots were accepted with no problems, and 7,947 ballots were accepted after voters fixed them through the state’s ballot curing process. Karen Brinson Bell, executive director for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, believed the low rate of rejected ballots this year is the result of proactive efforts by election officials around the state.

"The preparations and extra effort that we were trying to put into educating voters, having good materials for them, knowing that more people would be voting by mail because of the pandemic," Brinson Bell said.

Brinson Bell pointed to data showing more than 70% of voters who had a ballot with curable problems or had spoiled ballots ended up casting their vote successfully — whether through early one-stop voting, a new absentee by-mail ballot or on Election Day.

The 2020 general election had a rejection rate that was slightly lower than in 2016 when 2.6% of a much smaller pool of absentee ballots was rejected.

An unmarked envelope and absentee ballot for a voter in Orange County.
Amy Jeffries
The container envelope for North Carolina absentee ballots got a refresh in July 2020.

Brinson Bell said several factors led to the 2020 general election’s low rejection rate. She said one of the most important actions the state board took was a redesign of the absentee ballot envelope that formatted it vertically, with clearer steps. She said her office also sent consistent guidance about the absentee ballot curing process to each county elections board.

"Because we knew that we would have such a strong turnout in absentee-by-mail voting," Brinson Bell said. "And that would be, in many ways, a much newer process for the county boards of election. And so they needed as much uniformity as we could, and that perhaps could have influenced the acceptance rate."

The guidance covered how counties should contact voters whose ballots had mistakes that could be cured before Election Day and sending out replacement ballots to voters who had mistakes requiring their ballot to be spoiled.

That ballot curing process was the subject of litigation in the fall. The litigation came from multiple voter interest groups that had concerns about absentee ballots being accepted in this election, as hundreds of thousands of people would turn to absentee-by-mail voting for the first time amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and a board member of the Guilford County Board of Elections, said he was encouraged by the low rejection rate and expected it to be higher this year. He said for the African American community, specifically, there was a need to familiarize voters with how to fill out their absentee ballot envelope.

"Sometimes what occurs in the minds of African Americans is, if they don’t show up at the precinct, then they have not voted," Spearman said. "So we had to get them accustomed to, or cultivated to, understanding that the absentee ballot was no less of a way of casting a vote."

Spearman also said the coronavirus pandemic made an education campaign even more difficult because organizers couldn’t rely on in-person gatherings like church services to explain each step of filling out an absentee ballot. He said organizers pivoted to how-to videos on social media and an NAACP voter hotline that fielded questions about how to send in a ballot and track its status online.

Spearman said the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ ballot envelope redesign was better but still had significant flaws. The witness address line was only one line long, for instance, and he said people witnessing a ballot could have been confused about how much of their address they needed to include for it to be accepted.

Overall, Spearman said the data from the 2020 election are encouraging and that voting groups should take note when thinking about how to message to voters in future elections.

"There were a lot of advances that I believe were made," Spearman said. "And the messaging, you have choices. You have alternatives of how to do that, and especially during the pandemic. And that’s what we were trying to do our best to do."

The General Assembly loosened rules for absentee by-mail voting in June, like allowing ballot requests to be made online and reducing the number of witnesses needed from two to one. But that was only for the 2020 general election.

Spearman hoped those changes can become permanent, now that more than 1 million North Carolina voters have used absentee-by-mail ballots to vote successfully.

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Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.