Arkansas' uncounted ballots high in '16

1 in 20 absentee votes disqualified, data for state shows

"I Voted" stickers for early voters Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, at the Benton County Election Commission office in Rogers.
"I Voted" stickers for early voters Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, at the Benton County Election Commission office in Rogers.

About 1 in 20 absentee ballots didn't count in Arkansas during the 2016 general election, far worse than the national average of 1 in 100, according to federal data analyzed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The data comes from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which compiles statistics on every general election using surveys from county clerks across the country. The data isn't perfect. About two-thirds of Arkansas counties submitted enough data to measure how many votes were counted and how many weren't. Most of the rest left at least one of those categories blank, and a few input numbers of counted and uncounted votes that didn't add up to the total number of votes.

The statistics raise concerns that in an election season already seeing a surge of absentee voting, thousands of ballots may not be counted in Arkansas.

At the same time, civic leaders emphasize the value of every vote. Earlier this year, a primary runoff for a state House of Representatives race was decided by a single vote when Joy Springer defeated Ryan Davis after an overseas ballot from Sweden was cast in her favor.

About 118,000 voters requested absentee ballots as of early Tuesday afternoon, according to the Arkansas secretary of state's office, with a week to go before the Oct. 27 deadline to request one. More than 70,000 absentee ballots already have been returned by voters. That compares with about 30,000 absentee ballots transmitted to voters in 2016.

Studies in other states show inexperienced absentee voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected, according to Barry Burden, a political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"There is a real possibility that an even greater share of ballots will be rejected this year because so many of people voting by absentee will be using that method for the first time," Burden said.

County clerks are doing their best to make voting accessible and easy, said Nell Matthews, president of the League of Women Voters of Arkansas. She noted that only some voters are notified that they completed their absentee ballot process incorrectly, and they are only notified after the election.

"I just think that there's going to be a little bit of confusion and a little bit of uncertainty," Matthews said. "It's all new to people who are voting for the first time. That's my big concern."

In 2016, when the last presidential election was held, 55 of Arkansas' 75 counties reported data sufficient enough to analyze to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and 1,320 ballots returned to those counties to be tallied weren't counted.

It's unclear exactly why Arkansas' rate was five times higher than the national average. Election watchdogs have rated Arkansas poorly for years on absentee voting but not because ballots weren't counted.

Arkansas performs better than most states when the number of rejected mail-in ballots is calculated as a percentage of overall votes cast -- a metric often used by election watchdogs. About 1 in 1,000 votes was a rejected mail ballot in Arkansas in 2016; nationally, about 2 in 1,000 were rejected.

But Arkansans don't vote by mail as often as voters in other states do. About 2% of Arkansas votes were by mail in 2016. Nationally, a fifth of votes were by mail, a share that grew to a quarter in 2018.

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MISSED DEADLINE

One of the biggest reasons why absentee ballots are rejected is because they don't arrive on time. Tardiness accounted for hundreds of uncounted absentee ballots in Arkansas in 2016 and 2018, data show.

This summer, cuts at the U.S. Postal Service prompted the agency to recommend that voters request mail-in ballots no later than 15 days before Election Day because of the possibility sending the ballots one way could take a week. Postal Service audits show election and political mail hasn't met the goal of 96% delivered within the one- to three-day standard window. It was 94.5% during this spring's primaries and 95.6% during the 2018 general election.

Experts recommend delivering ballots in person instead of mailing them if it's within a week of Election Day.

"We're just urging everyone to get their absentee request in as soon as possible," Pope County Clerk Pam Ennis said.

Absentee turnout appears to be earlier and more in person via hand delivery in Craighead County, interim Clerk Lesli Penny said. In 2018, about 9% of Craighead County's absentee ballots were rejected, nearly all for arriving after Election Day. In 2016, 7.4% were rejected, nearly a third for arriving too late.

Like a majority of states, Arkansas requires absentee ballots to arrive by the time polls close, leaving it to voters to decide how early to mail their ballots.

In 2016 and 2018, hundreds of returned ballots arrived too late. In Pulaski County, more than 200 late ballots mailed within the week of the election weren't counted. That prompted county officials to call for a law change that would allow ballots that were postmarked by Election Day and received within a limited window to be counted. After discussion, no bill was introduced in the state Legislature.

According to secretary of state data that doesn't include late ballots, in 2018 about 1 in 9 absentee voters returned their ballots on the day before or the day of the election. About 1 in 3 returned them in the last week.

Voters don't have to mail in their ballots if they are able to drop them off in person at the county clerk's office.

Arkansas law requires voters to sign the absentee ballot backs when they drop them off, and a worker has to witness it. As a result, many counties aren't operating drop-off locations, although people can hand-deliver their ballots to clerks' offices. Craighead County has one drop-off location, which will be open during early-voting hours. Pulaski County opened a drive-thru drop-off area that is also limited by hours.

[RELATED: Full coverage of elections in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/elections/]

ID REQUIRED

Another reason absentee ballots aren't counted is because of a lack of photo identification.

That accounts for several dozens of ballots each year, data shows. It's unclear just how many, because counties aren't asked to report ballots rejected for a lack of ID in the federal survey.

In Jefferson County in 2018, 66 of the 357 absentee ballots weren't counted. Out of those, 54 -- 15% of the county's absentee ballots -- weren't counted because the ID requirement wasn't met.

Chief Deputy Clerk Tiffany Lowery hopes that will turn out better this year, with better placement of the voter identity affirmation option, if the voter chooses not to provide ID.

Voters who don't affirm their identity or supply a photo ID have a six-day window after the election to "cure" their ballots, presenting the photo ID to be counted. But people who make other errors, such as forgetting to sign the voter statements or failing to place the voter statement in the proper envelope -- both common mistakes -- have no way to correct their errors.

The League of Women Voters of Arkansas and three other plaintiffs have sued Secretary of State John Thurston and six members of the state Board of Election Commissioners to allow clerks to begin comparing signatures to ensure they match 15 days before Election Day, and to allow voters to fix discrepancies before Election Day.

Having a cure period, especially before Election Day has passed, is crucial for getting more absentee ballots to count, said Trey Hood, a professor of political science and Survey Research Center director at the University of Georgia. Many voters are less interested in fixing their ballots once the preliminary results have been reported.

"A lot of people just don't see the point of it at that time," Hood said.

Dozens of voters also neglect to sign their voter statements, resulting in rejection of their ballots.

In Pope County, that was the most common reason or rejection in 2018. Out of 46 rejected ballots, 31 had no voter statement. That's of 263 absentee ballots returned, meaning about 11.8% of absentee ballots were rejected for lacking a voter statement.

Civic leaders also have expressed concerns about ballot signatures not matching a signature on file with the government, but it's unclear how often ballots are rejected for that reason. The 2018 federal data shows 21 such ballots weren't counted for that reason; numerous counties did not filled out that column.

Even with the higher error rate, compared with in-person voting, Matthews said an election process that includes automatically mailed ballots to all voters, who are also automatically registered on their 18th birthdays, is more modernized and ideal, compared with the current system in Arkansas. It's easier for voters and gives them more time to decide on every issue, she said. People who vote by mail regularly will have a better handle on the process, too, she said.

"We just need a better system," she said. "I want to see us get a nice, modernized voting system. I think mail-in ballots would be a big help."