SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
At least 550,000 mail-in ballots have been rejected in this year's primaries so far, according to a new analysis by NPR. That is far more than the total number of ballots rejected in the 2016 general election, and that may ring alarm bells about what might happen this November when tens of millions more voters are expected to cast ballots by mail. NPR's Pam Fessler joins us. Pam, thanks so much for being with us.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.
SIMON: The alarms, I suppose, are in the ear of the beholder. Many fear widespread disenfranchisement because of rejected ballots. Many see the frailties of mail-in voting. Let's start with what we know about why so many mail-in ballots have been rejected.
FESSLER: Well, they're rejected for several reasons. And by the way, Scott, the numbers we have are on the low side because not every state has been reporting them. But most of the ballots that are rejected, it's because the envelope lacks a witness or voter signature, or else the voter signature doesn't match the one that the election office has on the record.
And the second big reason is that a lot of these ballots just arrived too late. Most states require that they be in by Election Day, but, as we've been hearing in the last few weeks, there have been a lot of delays in mail delivery. And, of course, we have so many more people voting by mail this year because of the pandemic, and many of them for the first time, so that's led to a big spike in the number of rejected ballots.
SIMON: And is there a pattern to whose ballots are being rejected?
FESSLER: Well, the research is pretty limited. But what we do know is that first-time absentee voters, as well as young voters and voters of color are more likely than others to have their ballots rejected. And that's often because, you know, quite simply, they're unfamiliar with the rules. And there's also some variability in how these rules are imposed, especially for things like whether signatures match, which can be pretty subjective.
Daniel Smith, who's a political scientist at the University of Florida, studied his state's March primary, where more than 1% of mail-in ballots were rejected. And he found that Black and Hispanic voters were disproportionately affected. And in some cases, their ballots were twice as likely to be rejected than those of white voters. And he says this could make a big difference in the general election, even just in Florida alone.
DANIEL SMITH: If you have 1% of maybe up to 6 million votes, you're talking of tens of thousands of votes that potentially are going to be rejected. And they're not rejected evenly across the electorate.
SIMON: Pam, November is getting closer. What kind of impact could there be?
FESSLER: Well, it could affect not only the outcome of the presidential race but also congressional and other contests, if they're close. President Trump won the state of Wisconsin in 2016 by just under 23,000 votes, but more than 23,000 absentee ballots were rejected in Wisconsin's primary in April. And there will likely be many, many more people voting by mail in November.
And the types of voters who are more likely to have their ballots rejected, these young, first-time Black and Hispanic voters, they tend to vote Democratic. So that certainly has Democrats worried, especially as they're encouraging their supporters to vote by mail this year because of the pandemic. And a new survey by the Democracy Fund and UCLA finds that 48% of those who plan to vote for Joe Biden say they'll likely vote by mail, compared to only 23% of Trump supporters.
SIMON: There are efforts afoot - aren't there? - to try and avoid so many rejected ballots in November.
FESSLER: Right - a lot, but most of it's happening in courts. Democrats are suing in about half the states, trying to get these rules eased, so, for example, that people don't need to have witnesses sign their ballots or that ballots only have to be postmarked by Election Day, not actually received by Election Day in order to count. They'd also like election officials to contact voters if there are any errors on their mail-in ballots so they have a chance to fix them.
Republicans are fighting these changes. They say loosening the rules will undermine the integrity of the election by removing safeguards against mail-in voter fraud, even though such fraud is extremely rare.
SIMON: NPR's Pam Fessler, thanks so much.
FESSLER: Thanks a lot, Scott.
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