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•More than 550,000 primary absentee ballots were rejected in 2020.  Make sure your absentee ballot counts.  

An extraordinarily high number of ballots — more than 550,000 — have been rejected in this year's presidential primaries, according to a new analysis by NPR. That's far more than the 318,728 ballots rejected in the 2016 general election and has raised alarms about what might happen in next month’s general election, when tens of millions more voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail, many for the first time.

Election experts said first-time absentee voters are much more likely to make the kinds of mistakes that lead to rejected ballots. Studies also show that voters of color and young voters are more likely than others to have their ballots not count.

Most absentee or mail-in ballots are rejected because required signatures are missing or don't match the one on record, or because the ballot arrives too late.

Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, noted that outright rejection of ballots are only part of the picture. He said they don't always take into account mail-in ballots that are initially accepted but then not counted because of other mistakes, such as a voter incorrectly choosing too many candidates or incorrectly circling a candidate's name instead of filling in the bubble next to it.

Such errors are usually caught at the polling place and can be corrected before voters casts their ballots. Most voting machines will also not allow people to overvote accidentally, or choose too many candidates in a given race.

"Those mistakes are avoided when you vote in person," Smith said. "You have seven, 10 people who can assist you in terms of making sure that you know about the ovals having to be filled out." As a result, only about 1/100th of a percent of in-person ballots are rejected compared with about 1% of mail-in ballots.

Battleground states

Even with limited data, the implications are considerable. NPR found that tens of thousands of ballots have been rejected in key battleground states, where the outcome in November — for the presidency, Congress and other elected positions — could be determined by a relatively small number of votes.

For example, President Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by almost 23,000 votes. More than 23,000 absentee ballots were rejected in the state's presidential primary in April. More than 37,000 primary ballots were also rejected in June in Pennsylvania, a state Trump won by just over 44,000 votes.

The numbers are also significant because of large partisan differences in how Americans plan to vote this fall. Democrats have expressed more interest than Republicans in voting by mail — 47% to 28% in the Democracy Fund/UCLA survey. Forty-eight percent of those who intend to vote for Joe Biden say they will use mail-in ballots, compared with 23% of Trump supporters.

According to Rob Griffin of the Democracy Fund, about a quarter of those who voted in person in the last election say they plan to vote by mail this November. The same is true for those who have never voted before and will be casting their first ballots in this year's election.

With so much at stake, the political parties and candidates have made voting options, and the rules that surround them, a central part of their campaigns.

Trump has repeatedly blasted mail-in voting as ripe for widespread fraud despite a lack of evidence. At the same time, Republicans are encouraging their supporters to vote by mail. In fact, Trump and his wife, Melania, did so in Florida's primary.

For their part, Democrats are pushing widespread mail-in voting but are also concerned that many of their voters' ballots could be rejected if the rules aren't relaxed. They're in court in more than half the states fighting to extend mail-in ballot deadlines and to waive witness and notary requirements. They also want voters to be given the opportunity to fix errors before their ballots are rejected.

At the same time, Democrats are calling on election offices to make in-person voting and other options available for those who don't want to vote by mail. These concerns have grown in recent weeks with news of cuts in the U.S. Postal Service that could impede ballot delivery.

"The parties are making this political calculus right now," said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida. He said they're trying to balance concerns about mail-in voting with the possibility that people won't turn out in person due to the health risks of voting during a pandemic.

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