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How many Utah mail-in ballots are being rejected, and why? Here’s the data.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lannie Chapman, Chief Deputy Clerk, prepares primary election ballots for counting at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Wednesday July 1, 2020.

How often do mail-in ballots in Utah have something wrong with them? And when they do, what happens?

Thanks to data from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, which runs the election in Utah, we know how many ballots have been sent to voters, and how many of those have been successfully processed so far. We also know about the flip side of the coin: when those ballots are rejected.

In Utah’s database of about 1.1 million public registered voters, we have 7,653 examples of ballot failures as of Friday, or about 0.7% of ballots sent.

About two-thirds of the 7,653 were marked as “returned undeliverable” — that is, the ballot was unable to reach the registered voter, so the Postal Service returned it to the government. The USPS says that about 75% of mail returned as undeliverable is because the intended recipient has moved. A further 12% is from the lack of necessary address information, like a missing apartment number.
If you’ve moved recently, you’ll want to verify that your address is correct. Utahns can still update their registration online by 5 p.m Friday, and can do so in person until Election Day.

Of the remaining failed ballots, 2,284 were marked as “Signatures did not match the voter record.” There were also 422 times when someone forgot to sign, 69 times when the county didn’t have a signature anywhere on file for the voter, 41 times when a signature was marked “invalid,” 33 detected “possible signature swaps” (where a husband might have signed a wife’s ballot and vice versa), and 17 times where they clearly identified that a ballot was “signed by someone other than the voter.”

That last one is voter fraud — a felony. While they’ll likely be lenient on you unless the fraud is grievous, it’s still not worth the attempt, and they’re not going to count it anyway. Officials have said in the past this is often parents signing a ballot for their son and daughter on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In all, we’ll add those up to get about 2,800 signature failures, or about 1% of total ballots that have been processed so far. As longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen explained to Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke last week, election officials go through several steps to try to find a similar signature for the voter before rejecting it outright.

If that happens, county clerks in Utah are required to send a “cure letter,” telling the voter what happened, and giving that voter an opportunity to fix it. Over the past few days of watching this data, I saw some counties' numbers of ballots rejected due to signatures decrease — a sign that county clerks have been working with voters to get ballots counted accurately.

I was curious to see if there is a pattern in the ballots that get returned for signature failure? If there was election cheating going on (either by a group of voters or by the county clerks), you might expect one party’s vote to be more heavily scrutinized for signature verification. I couldn’t find evidence of that. Here’s how Utah’s signature verification errors measure up by the party of the voter who made the error, compared to the registered party of voters so far.

If anything, it’s unaffiliated voters who are more likely to make errors on the signature step, which doesn’t point to much of a conspiracy. There did seem to be differences in terms of the frequency of signature errors per county, though.

There’s an obvious reason why Sanpete County has the highest signature verification problems — they sent out ballots without a place for voters to sign. The mistake, which the county blames on a printing company, is a big one. The county is asking Sanpete voters to sign where the perforation is on the envelope. Postcards explaining the fix have been sent to voters. But we’ll expect Sanpete to lead the way in signature verification problems throughout this election.
Beyond Sanpete, the variation in other counties could be random chance, or could be real differences in the signature verification process. Remember, you can go to Utah’s voter website to track the status of your ballot, and it’s a good idea to verify that your vote counted once you’ve mailed it back.

There’s been an inordinate amount of attention paid to the possibility of ballots being cast by dead people as a result of mail-in voting. So far, among the million-plus ballots sent, we’ve seen eight disqualified because someone returned a ballot for someone who is deceased. Four were registered as Republican, three unaffiliated, and one Democratic, if you’re morbidly curious.

I strongly identify with the forgetfulness required for some of the rarest forms of mail-in ballot failure. Two people have returned their envelope without a ballot in it. That was pulled off by two Republicans, one in Centerville and one in Kaysville. A Republican in Washington County did the opposite and stuffed multiple ballots in only one envelope.

And I’m either frightened or impressed with the organizational systems used by one Republican in Mount Pleasant, who managed to return a ballot from a past election in this election’s envelope. My desk isn’t quite that messy, but it’s not too far from it.
Overall, though, the data is reflective of a system with a very high success rate and multiple filters to prevent failure. Rare accidents happen, but because you can check the status of your vote, mistakes can be rectified, and there’s always the fallback system of Election Day in-person voting, it’s a popular system, too.

Don’t forget to double-check your signatures, envelopes, and, of course, make sure you have your ballot postmarked by Nov. 2 — the day before Election Day — to avoid the ignominy of having your vote rejected.

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