Here’s how to make sure your mail-in ballot actually counts

It’s important to know your state’s rules, but a few general tips can prevent ballot rejections in any state.

Here’s how to make sure your mail-in ballot actually counts
[Photo: Cindy Shebley/iStock]

Millions of Americans, far more than ever before, will cast their ballots by mail in the November election. For many it’ll be a first. Given that, and the huge stakes of this election, there’s plenty of worry to go around over whether all those mail-in ballots will find their way to being counted.


Those fears were stoked anew last week when NPR’s Pam Fessler and Elena Moore reported that more than 550,000 ballots were rejected during this year’s primary elections—far more than the 318,728 mail-in ballots rejected in 2016’s general election, which had far more turnout.

The rules around requesting and casting an absentee ballot vary somewhat between counties and states. (You can find instructions and rules for your state here.) These relate to whether or not the voter needs an “excuse” to vote absentee, how an absentee ballot can be requested, and the windows in which ballots can be requested and submitted.

But a few general best practices will go a long way toward making sure your mail-in ballot gets counted, regardless of where you live. Those best practices address the most common reasons that mail-in ballots are rejected. In short, they are: Sign the ballot, sign it right, follow the instructions, and send it in on time.

Signing correctly

In both the 2018 election and the 2020 primaries, thousands of ballots were rejected by election officials because the voter forgot to sign the ballot. Don’t let this be you. You’ll need to write your signature on the ballot envelope. If election workers see no signature there, they will reject the ballot and may not notify you your ballot has been rejected.

The way you write your signature is very important, too, says Debra Cleaver, founder of the voter-enablement tech nonprofit VoteAmerica. County election workers will look at your signature, then compare it to other versions of your signature they may have on file. They may check your signature against a signature they get from the DMV, or against one you wrote on your voter registration form. If the signature you write on your mail-in ballot doesn’t match, the ballot might be rejected.

Attorney and election integrity advocate Jennifer Cohn points out that every state’s mail-in ballot has its own rules and instructions for how to fill it out. Make sure to read the instructions, and follow them to the letter.


Returning the ballot on time

Many thousands of mail-in ballots are rejected each year because voters fail to return them to county election officials on time. Some states require that the ballot arrive in the hands of election officials on or before Election Day, while many others have changed voting laws to require only that the ballot is postmarked on or before election day. It’s very important to know your state’s deadline for mail-in voting. You can find this information in the elections section of your Secretary of State’s website, or at your county elections website.

Given the increased volume of mail-in ballots, it’s better to do it early, like now. “And when you return it, put it in a drop box rather than relying on the U.S. Postal Service, which has been gutted by the Trump Administration,” says Cohn. The U.S. Postal Service has removed 10% of its mail sorting machines across 49 states, and has no plans for reinstating them before the election.

Some of the responsibility falls on county election officials. Even before the coronavirus descended earlier this year, there were already well-documented problems with voters not receiving their mail-in ballots on time, or at all. For example, in early March, Los Angeles county failed to send out 17,000 mail-in ballots in time for people to return them by the deadline.


Even if you fill out your mail-in ballot perfectly, there’s still a chance that something will go wrong. And in most cases it’s up to you to find out. Only 19 states notify absentee voters if their ballot was rejected because of a signature discrepancy. Nineteen states have passed laws requiring election officials to provide a website where mail-in voters can check the status of their ballot, and another 14 states have built such sites voluntarily. You can see an example of one such website, Maryland’s, here.

After you mail in or drop off your ballot, it’s a good idea to find out if your state has a “ballot status” website, and then use it. If no such website exists, consider calling your county elections board to ask for confirmation that your ballot was received and scanned.

High anxiety

Voting by mail is nothing new, of course, and the numbers of people who prefer to vote that way has been steadily rising. But the coronavirus changed everything, and suddenly county and state election officials are faced with an election where mail-in ballots will be a primary mode of participation. Election officials are working to prepare for the flood of mail-ins, but they have other problems to devote time and money to, like defending against election system hacks.


According to Cleaver, NPR’s finding that higher numbers of mail-in ballots were rejected during the primaries must be seen in that context. It could have been much worse. “The first thing that I thought of when I saw that was that 10 times more people voted by mail in those elections, so the fact that the number of rejected ballots was not 10 times more is actually good news,” she says.

Younger and minority voters are more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected, according to a study from Stanford and MIT.”

All those ballot rejections—and the ones they suggest are coming in November—might be easier to accept if they were distributed evenly across demographic groups and political affiliations. But they’re not. Stanford and MIT researchers found in a study of the 2020 Florida primary that younger and minority voters were more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected. Only 1.3% of the total number of mailed ballots were rejected in the election, yet 3.56% ballots cast by 18-to-29-year-olds were rejected, and 2.32% of Black voters’ mailed ballots were not counted. (The researchers do not speculate on the reason for this.)

That effect could be amplified in a very close election, which this year’s presidential election may turn out to be. If it’s like the 2016 race, it could be decided by less than 100,000 votes across a handful of swing states.

There are bound to be snags, holdups, and errors in the collection and counting of mail-in ballots by the more than 3,000 counties in the United States. So a final word of advice: Be patient. We may not get the dramatic election-night conclusion that we’re used to. It may take a week or more to tabulate both the mail-ins and the in-person ballots correctly. With so much on the line in this election, officials should be given time to get it right. We can do our part by resisting the urge to share speculation on the winners before the counting’s done.


About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.