Uh-oh, is your ballot spoiled? Simon says: No problem.

What happens if you mess up that absentee ballot

By: - September 17, 2020 6:00 am

Milk’s not the only thing that can spoil — ballots can, too. At least that’s what it’s called when a ballot is incorrectly filled out and not included in election counts. 

In an election year in which voters may choose en masse to vote-by-mail for fear of the spread of COVID-19, we talked to Secretary of State Simon to answer some questions about spoiled ballots this election cycle and what to do if you make a mistake in that pesky permanent black ink. His answers were edited for space and clarity.

Dylan Miettinen: What exactly is a spoiled ballot?

Steve Simon: A spoiled ballot is a ballot that cannot and will not be counted because it did not meet a certain standard. It might be because it’s too late. It might be in a normal year — which this is not — because they forgot to have a witness sign the ballot. It might be because they somehow filled out the ballot wrong. 

DM: Typically if someone incorrectly or inaccurately fills out a ballot at a polling station, they can just go up and ask for a new one. How does that differ in terms of mail-in-voting?

S.S.: Fortunately, we’re a state that has a law on the books that says if someone sends in a ballot and it is rejected, they must be contacted and given an opportunity to do a do-over, basically. I’m an optimist this year about rejected ballots. 

There are historically two big reasons, at least in Minnesota, that ballots have been rejected. The number one reason for rejecting an absentee ballot, at least in recent history in Minnesota, is that the person forgot to get a witness to sign, even though it says in the instructions, and there’s a place for a witness signature. But this year, there’s a one time order that our office signed, and it says that this year only, the witness requirement will be suspended. So the number one reason for rejected ballots is now off the table.

And then the second biggest reason is timeliness, when [a mailed in ballot} comes in late. The normal rule in a normal year, which this is not, is that the ballots must get there by Election Day. This year, the rule is different. The rule is it must be postmarked by Election Day, and as long as it gets there by seven days after Election Day. So what that means is, every Minnesotan has an automatic seven-day cushion.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon speaks with city clerk Melissa Kennedy and election specialist Robert Stokka during a public accuracy test of Election Day voting machines at the Municipal Services Center on October 23, 2018 in St. Louis Park. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

DM: What have rejection rates for spoiled ballots looked like in the past?

S.S: In the primary, for example, we had about a 1% rejection rate. Historically, it’s important to make the distinction that the number of rejections does not equal the number of disenfranchised voters, because usually a majority of rejected ballots results in a [later] successful vote. In 2018, 65% of the rejections were notified and they said, ‘Oh, thank you for notifying me. I’ll do it right this time.’ So, it’s just important to make that distinction.

DM: What are the most common mistakes that people make on their ballots?

S.S.: Take primaries, for example. There are more than two parties, but let’s say one column has all the Democratic primary contests, and one is all the Republican contests and that ballot states very clearly, and so does Minnesota law, that you can only vote in one column — you can’t mix and match races. You can’t say, well I’m voting in the governor primary for DFL candidates, but then in the auditor’s race vote Republican. You can’t cross the column. So, the entire ballot is spoiled, not just a particular contest.

in a general election, no such circumstance exists. It’s just contest by contest. A particular contest might be a spoiled vote, but the whole ballot isn’t. One example is the judicial races. Sometimes, you turn over the back of that ballot and see multiple judges. You can only vote for one, but you see a bunch of names, and there are people who vote for two. That doesn’t mean the whole ballot is spoiled. The person’s president or U.S. Senate or Congress or whatever is counted, but for that particular office, it’s not counted.

DM: Who exactly determines whether a ballot is spoiled?

S.S.: In terms of doing it wrong, like an overvote, it’s the machine. The other stuff — for timeliness or the absence of a witness — that is done by a creature we have in Minnesota called ballot boards. Every jurisdiction, city or county, that does absentee ballots has to have a ballot board. Literally every single ballot, there must be a decision — a thumbs up or thumbs down, accepted and valid or rejected, just as a threshold matter. 

That’s why in Minnesota, we’re in pretty good shape. We urged the Legislature, and they thankfully passed a bill saying just for this year, we’re giving a 14-day head start to those counting ballots before the election. The usual rule was seven days in Minnesota and even that was very good. But one of the things that counties and cities said with this tidal wave of absentee ballots, and people voting by mail, is we need more time. We need a bigger head start, so they doubled it. 

DM: What happens to all those spoiled ballots?

S.S.: They’re kept. All ballots have to be kept under federal law for 22 months. I’d imagine they’re segregated in some way, but they have to be kept. And then after 22 months, ballots from a previous election can be destroyed — typically incinerated, shredded, something like that. 

DM: Anything else you’d like to add?

S.S.: Spoiled ballots do not equal spoiled votes; a majority of voters whose ballots were rejected successfully do the do-over.

Get help registering to vote here.

And help getting an absentee ballot here

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Dylan Miettinen
Dylan Miettinen

Dylan Miettinen is a Reformer intern. A fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota, he was born and raised in Omaha, Neb. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. He's also worked for CNN, the Minnesota Media and Publishing Association and the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast.