© 2024 KUAF
NPR Affiliate since 1985
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why does Arkansas reject so many absentee ballots?

A voter fills out a ballot at the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati.
John Minchillo
A voter fills out a ballot at the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati.

Arkansas election officials reject more absentee ballots than all but one other state.

State-reported data show about 1,100 of the 15,000 total mail-in ballots received in 2022 were thrown out.

KUAR spoke with Arkansas Times Managing Editor Benji Hardy about his story looking at some of the potential reasons for Arkansas’ high rejection rate.

Interview Highlights

On the rise of mail-in ballots in the 2020 election

2020 was a year unlike any other, an election unlike any other, because of COVID. All across the country, election officials in every state were struggling with this unprecedented situation of absentee ballots coming in at a much higher rate.

There were worries around the country about rejecting mail-in ballots… and in general, rates were not much higher. The highest state in the country for rejection rates was Arkansas, though… we threw out over 6% of the mail-in ballots we received, which is quite a bit higher than any other state.

But it was not limited to 2020. If you look at data from 2018 and 2022, you see Arkansas is consistently number one or number two for rejecting ballots that it receives in the mail… the discrepancy’s pretty large between Arkansas and the median, including a lot of other red states and all of our neighbors.

Counties are more or less on their own to regulate elections, is there an overarching regulatory body overseeing them?

There’s two state offices involved in that process; there’s the Secretary of State’s Office, which maintains the voter rolls and is responsible for voter registration, but they do not run the elections. Then there’s the State Board of Election Commissioners, which is responsible for training and oversight of the county boards… it’s not the same as regulation, and I don’t think the state board takes a very heavy hand in keeping track of what the counties are up to.

At the county level, the folks in charge of elections are the county board of election commissioners, and that’s a three-person body that’s composed of two Republicans and one Democrat, selected by the county party committees. As ballots are coming in in the mail, you have volunteer poll workers who are trained to count those ballots and make decisions on whether something should be thrown out or not.

If, for example, there’s a signature missing from the voter statement, which is a required document that must accompany any mail-in ballot, that’s a clear violation. Then there are ballots that are trickier where, say, there’s an address that doesn’t quite match up; they didn’t put an apartment number, or they put the wrong ZIP code. Those questions would go to the county board of election commissioners to then make a call on whether this ballot can be counted or whether it should be rejected.

In Arkansas, if you make a mistake on your absentee ballot, is it true that you aren’t allowed to fix those mistakes?

Right, and that’s something else that people cited to me as one of the things that could make a big difference in Arkansas. There’s no “cure period” as they call it. Interestingly, there is a cure period for the ID requirement since that’s a fairly new law. If a voter mails in their mail-in ballot, everything’s perfect on the voter statement, everything matches but they don’t include a photo ID, then they have a window of time after Election Day to remedy that. That is not the case at all with issues on the voter statement.

What more should the state do to correct this problem?

One answer is training, that’s something that came up in my interviews… some of the folks I interviewed cited more of a cultural thing, I suppose. There’s obviously been a lot of rhetoric from former President Trump and others about rampant voter fraud. That can create a culture of suspicion around counting a ballot or not.

Many people would say give the ballot the benefit of the doubt, but others may see it differently, may tend to look for reasons to throw out a ballot and sort of think of their job as election commissioners or poll workers to be policing, looking for any reason to throw a ballot out.

What are the potential long-term effects if Arkansas continues to have a high absentee ballot rejection rate?

This is not going to swing the balance of power in the state, the numbers we’re talking about here. Mail-in ballots are still a pretty small percentage of the overall number of votes cast in most any election. But it can make a huge difference in individual, local races where sometimes things come down to a dozen votes. That’s certainly not unheard of.

Any legitimate vote does need to be counted, and it should not be made unduly difficult for people. Often, Republicans are much more concerned with issues of election security because of some of these worries about fraud, whether those are valid or not. I would hope there’s a way to address those concerns without throwing out hundreds or thousands of ballots that should be counted.

It could be very discouraging as a voter to know that if you mail in a ballot, it could be a bit of a toss-up on whether it is counted.

Stay Connected
Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer and currently serves as News Director of UA Little Rock Public Radio.
Related Content
  • Every odd year, the Arkansas Secretary of State combs through the voter roll to correct and remove registered voters information. This year, hundreds of names are incorrectly marked as "inactive" on the list.
  • So, you want to vote in the next election. Simple right? Not necessarily. But at Natural Election, we're here to help. We're peeling back the curtain on voting and elections in Arkansas ahead of the election on November 5th. From voting rights to registering to vote and some of the quirks about elections in the Natural State.