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Why absentee ballots get rejected, and how to make sure yours isn't

A maks on top of an absentee ballot envelope
The ACLU of Michigan says that around 35,000 people who voted in Michigan elections between late 2018 and August 2020 weren't aware their absentee ballots had been rejected.

In the middle of a pandemic, a lot of voters are planning to cast their vote via absentee ballot. It's a fairly simple process (which you can learn more about here). You fill out your ballot, put it in the mail, track it to your local clerk’s office where it will be counted come Election Day. But between November 2018 and August 2020, the ACLU of Michigan says there were around 35,000 people who thought they had voted, but actually had their absentee ballots rejected. The organization has been sending letters out to those voters to let them know what went wrong, and how to avoid it this time around. 

“Whatever information we can provide to voters is likely to improve their performance and their ability to make sure their voice counts in the future,” said Sharon Dolente, voting rights strategist for the ACLU of Michigan. 

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The state of Michigan has had no-reason absentee voting since voters passed Proposal 3 in 2018. But in this year’s August primary alone, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office reported that 10,694 absentee ballots weren’t counted. So, if you are sending in an absentee ballot this November, Dolente says, there's a few things you can do to ensure your vote is counted. 

What are the reasons an absentee ballot could be rejected?

Dolente says that the top reason ballots get rejected is that they aren’t received by the deadline. Often, she adds, a voter underestimates the amount of time it will take for the letter to make it to their local clerk's office in the mail.

“The postal service says that it’ll take one to three days,” she said. “With the challenges of the pandemic this year and the attacks on the postal service, that started to increase in the August primary, and therefore we saw more voters whose ballots did not arrive by the deadline.”

Another big issue? Forgetting to sign your ballot. According to the Secretary of State’s office, you need to sign the absentee ballot return envelope, and that signature must match the signature on your voter registration record.

Absentee ballots will also be “rejected as illegal” if a voter is incarcerated or passes away before an election.

How do you find out whether your absentee ballot was rejected?

You can check the status of your absentee ballot via the Michigan Voter Information Center. You can also call your local clerk for confirmation.

Dolente says Michigan clerks are doing their best to ensure all votes are counted. When it looked into the issue of rejected absentee ballots, the ACLU actually found that many clerks already made it a practice to let voters know if there was an issue with their signature. Now, though, clerks are required to notify voters within 48 hours if their absentee ballot is rejected due to a signature problem. That’s thanks to Senate Bill 757, which Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law October 6.

How can I ensure my absentee ballot is counted in the upcoming election?

Make sure you sign your absentee ballot envelope — properly.

“Use [your] official signature, the one that [you] use on important documents, and not at the grocery store when you’re signing on one of those signature pads,” Dolente said.

You should mail it by October 20 at the latest, she says, otherwise, deliver it in person. Completed ballots can be returned at your local clerk’s office or to a secure drop box. You can find your local clerk or a drop box near you here.

If it’s past October 20, but you can’t vote in person or get to a drop box by yourself, you still have options. Immediate family members or someone living in your home can return your ballot for you, Dolente says. You can also ask your local clerk for help.

“You can call your city or township clerk, and they are required to provide assistance,” she said. “That could be the clerks themselves or a staff member with credentials who comes and picks up the ballot from you.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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