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Voting Rights Groups Help Americans 'Cure' Rejected Ballots

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tens of millions of voters have already requested and received mail-in ballots. Millions have been returned, but some of those ballots might not count because of problems, such as missing or mismatched signatures. Now voter advocacy groups and others are rushing to help voters fix or cure their ballots before it's too late. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Dana Abelson spent hours this week calling voters in Florida whose ballots are about to be rejected.

DANA ABELSON: Hi. Is Chandramani there? This is Dana. I'm a nonpartisan volunteer with Common Cause. And I was just calling because it seems like your mail-in ballot might have had a problem with the signature.

FESSLER: She says the signature is either missing or doesn't match the one on record. The good news is there's an easy way to fix it.

ABELSON: So are you near a computer? Because I can walk you through the process. Awesome.

FESSLER: In Florida, voters just have to sign and send in an affidavit verifying their identity. They can even do it online if they have a computer, like this voter does.

ABELSON: OK, that sounds wonderful. And thank you so much for being an early voter, and I hope your ballot gets fixed.

FESSLER: More than 1,100 Florida ballots so far need to be fixed, or cured, as it's called. Not a lot of votes, but in a close race, it can make a difference. An NPR analysis found that more than half a million ballots were rejected in this year's primaries because of similar problems. And the numbers could be a lot higher in the general election.

ADIN LENCHNER: We're not leaving anything to chance.

FESSLER: Adin Lenchner is with NexGen America, which mobilizes young voters to elect Democrats. Lechner says after all the time and energy they've spent getting voters registered and mailing in their ballots, they don't want those ballots rejected for mistakes that are pretty common for people who have never voted by mail before.

LENCHNER: It's confusing. You have to sign it in such and such place and mark it just right. You got to put it in your secrecy envelope and sign that one. The process is confusing, especially if you're a first-time voter.

FESSLER: So his group is also making calls. The political parties are doing the same to make sure their supporters' votes count, too. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina, has been tracking mail-in voting in his state. He says so far, many more Democrats than Republicans have ballots that need to be fixed. He says Black voters also have a disproportionate share, about 40%. He notes that mail-in voting is new to many of them.

MICHAEL BITZER: Typically, the voter forgot to sign the back of the return envelope, or they fail to have the witness fully complete the section of witness information.

FESSLER: And that's a problem in North Carolina, one of the few states that requires absentee voters to have a witness sign their ballot. The state's ballot curing process has also been tangled up in the courts, leaving voters confused and with limited time to fix any problems.

BITZER: We're basically changing the rules of the game in the middle of the game.

FESSLER: Similar legal fights are being waged in other states, only half of which allow voters to cure their mail-in ballots. If you make a mistake in others, you're out of luck and probably won't find out your ballot didn't count until after the election.

ABELSON: You have a couple more weeks, but it's best to do it as soon as possible so you can make sure to iron out any problems that come up.

FESSLER: Dana Abelson of Common Cause says most people are happy she called. They're eager to have their votes count, although one man did tell her that if the county didn't like his ballot, they could go shove it.

ABELSON: OK. I hope you have a great rest of your day.

FESSLER: Not everyone can be helped. An elderly woman said she was homebound and didn't have a computer. Abelson encouraged her to call the election office. Florida is one of 18 states required to inform voters if their ballot has errors, but it can take a few days. I later asked voter Isabelle Campbell (ph) if she was surprised to get Abelson's call.

ISABELLE CAMPBELL: I was, yeah, because I reviewed the instructions on the mail-in ballot, and I, you know, made sure to really slowly go through it and do what I needed to do to get the ballot counted. So I'm still not sure what the issue is.

FESSLER: But she's taking no chances. She'd already filled out her affidavit to get the ballot cured. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS' "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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