More Americans than ever are expected to cast their ballots through the mail this election, and doing so may seem daunting to first-time absentee voters or those unfamiliar with the process.
Some states now allow their residents to more easily cast mail-in ballots as the coronavirus pandemic makes the safety of in-person voting questionable, and the analyst website FiveThirtyEight estimates one-third of American voters will use this method, McClatchy News reported.
Mail-in voting, despite unfounded claims from President Donald Trump and other Republican lawmakers, does not lead to increased fraud and doesn’t help one party’s chances of winning over another.
But there are some common mistakes mail-in voters make that can render their ballots invalid.
In 2016, roughly 1% of all mail-in ballots cast were rejected, according to a report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. A CBS News analysis found in that in key battleground states, between just under 1% and 2% of mail-in ballots were rejected during the recent primary elections. In a tight election, that can make a critical difference.
Furthermore, first-time mail-in voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected, per NPR.
Here’s how to make sure your mail-in ballot is counted.
Register and request on time
First, make sure you register to vote by your state’s deadline. In most states, it can be done online, and registration deadlines for each state can be found here.
Some states will send mail-in ballots or mail-in ballot applications to every registered voter. But in others, voters will have to request one themselves, CNN reports. Many states allow voters to apply for ballots online, but others require additional steps.
The rules and deadlines for requesting a ballot vary, so it’s best to check your state’s policy. Information for each state can be found here.
States will send out ballots at various times, but the sooner you request one, the better.
“The sooner voters make a plan for how they can to vote, the smoother not only their experience will be, the smoother the elections around the nation will be,” Wendy Underhill, who tracks state election laws at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told The Washington Post.
Fill out your ballot correctly
When filling out your mail-in ballot, do so on a flat surface and away from anything that could spill on it or ruin it. Follow instructions carefully as some ballots function similarly to Scantron sheets used for standardized testing, Business Insider reports.
“You don’t want to use red ink, marker, or anything that could be problematic,” Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, told Business Insider. “If your instructions say to use black or blue ink, use black or blue ink. If it says fill in the oval, fill in the oval. I think it’s really critical for voters to follow the instructions more than anything.”
Some states require additional documentation to vote by mail.
Many states require a copy of photo identification. The list of those states can be found at Vote.org.
Other states will require witness signatures. The NCSL has a list of them here.
Don’t forget your signature
Two of the three most common reasons ballots were rejected in 2016 were a missing signature or a signature that didn’t match state records, according to the EAC report.
Most states require a signature on the back of the envelope used to send the ballot back — which must be the one provided — as a security measure, according to the Washington Post.
“I’ve jokingly said that we need Stevie Wonder to do a public service announcement where, you know, ‘Signed, sealed, delivered,’ ” Michael McDonald of the University of Florida told CBS News. “If people followed that very basic message, tens of thousands of votes would be accepted.”
Nineteen states notify voters when their signature is missing or invalid and give them a chance to correct it, according to the NCSL. But there are deadlines for doing so.
The signature also has to match state records.
Those worried their signature on file may be out of date can update it with their local elections office by sending in a new voter-registration form on paper or on a paper mail-ballot application, McReynolds told Business Insider.
Send it back on time
Missed deadlines were the third of the most common mistakes that got ballots rejected in the 2016 election, the EAC report found.
The U.S. Postal Service warned most states this week that many of their ballots may not arrive in time to be counted because their deadlines clash with its delivery service, The Hill reports.
Some states require ballots be postmarked by election day while others require them to be received by election day to count, according to VoteAmerica. Your state’s deadline can be found here.
But the Postal Service recommends voters sent their ballots back at least one week prior to election day — meaning by Oct. 27, The Washington Post reports.
Most states also allow voters to drop off their ballots at a local elections office, Business Insider reports.