Will your absentee vote count?

Though Alabama doesn’t keep track of rejected mail-in ballots, fatal errors are common
Updated: Oct. 19, 2020 at 8:50 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Alabama residents are casting absentee ballots in record numbers. Some of them, undoubtedly, will not get counted – and it has nothing to do with delays in the mail.

There are all sorts of ways voters can slip up when casting an absentee ballot if they don’t read the fine print. The ballot must have a signature, and that signature must be in the right place. It has to go into the correct envelope. It has to have witness signatures.

“Errors happen all the time,” said Alec Yasinsac, a University of South Alabama professor who has studied flaws in the absentee voting system. “And whether it’s not putting your ballot inside a privacy envelope, or including your ballot and your spouse’s ballot in the same return envelope, I mean, the average person would think, you know, that’s – it makes sense.”

Alabama does keep track of how many absentee ballots it rejects. But the experience of other states suggests it’s more common that you might think. National Public Radio counted 558,032 absentee votes that elections officials across the country rejected during the presidential primaries.

“Thousands and thousands of ballots are invalidated,” he said. “A very high percentage of ballots are invalidated that are stamped remotely.”

Yasinsac said he has personal experience with making mistakes on military ballots. He recalled voting by mail in the military, making a mistake, and writing his initials by the correction. That was a common way to correct errors in the military, he said. But it will invalidate a ballot.

Because of the sheer number of absentee voters because of the novel coronavirus pandemic – and because many of those voters will be doing it for the first time – the impact could be magnified in 2020. Yasinsac said in a high-turnout general election, rejected ballots nationwide could run into the millions.

It might not matter much to the ultimate outcome if the errors get distributed more or less evenly between Republicans and Democrats. But there is evidence to suggest voter errors on absentee ballots could hurt Democrats more. The party has placed a great emphasis on mail-in voting. In Mobile County, absentee voters historically have leaded Republican. But in the primary runoff, despite more votes overall in the GOP primary, Democratic absentee votes outnumbered those case in the Republican primary.

Overall, Mobile County recorded more than four times as many absentee votes in the runoff as it did during the 2016 presidential primary. Lines at the absentee ballot manager’s office in Mobile County typically has been long, and the Mobile County Probate Office has added Saturday hours to accommodate the demand.

So far, more than 200,000 people statewide have requested absentee ballots. That’s a record, already, and Secretary of State John Merrill said during an interview on FM 106.5 radio on Monday that he expects more – perhaps as many as 300,000 requested and 250,000 returned.

With so many absentee votes across the country, errors that lead to ballot rejections could decide a close election, Yasinsac said.

“Oh, it absolutely could,” he said.

Alabama voters cannot correct errors to absentee ballots. But they can track their ballots at myinfo.alabamavotes.gov and find out after the election if the ballots were counted or rejected. They also can confirm their voter registration status and find out their polling place if voting in person.

With the potential for absentee ballots to be the “hanging chads” of the 2020 election, the chairmen of the both the Mobile County Republican and Democratic parties are bracing for possible legal battles.

“The Republican Party will have lawyers on standby throughout the country for issues that might arise,” said Adam Bourne, the chairman of the Mobile County Republican Executive Committee. And the Democratic Party will do the same.”

His Democratic counterpart, Ben Harris, said Democrats would push to have all votes counted.

“Whatever the margin is statewide, Mobile County is very close. It is a very purple county,” he told FOX10 News. “And we, obviously, will be watching and enforcing wherever we can the rights of our voters to vote.”

But Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis says there is no wiggle room to count an improperly submitted absentee ballot.

“We follow the letter of the law in Mobile County,” he said.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 29. To count, the ballot must be postmarked by the following Monday and arrive at the absentee election office by noon on Election Day.