With record numbers opting to vote by mail in the upcoming election, the process of counting the ballots is going to look a little different this year. And even before that, there’s also the chance that some ballots could be rejected for having errors or omissions.
In an attempt to avoid this scenario, voter advocacy groups across the county are in a race against time to help voters adjust their ballots and ensure they’re counted. This process is called “ballot curing,” and here’s what you need to know about it.
What is ballot curing?
Despite terminology that sounds similar to “fixing” an election, it’s actually the opposite: the goal of ballot curing is to make elections fairer. Ballot curing is the process of correcting a ballot that was sent in with some type of error.
So what kinds of errors are we talking about? According to Cate Mayer, the founder and CEO of the civic action group Friends Vote Together—which, among other things, helps facilitate ballot curing—they range from neglecting to fill in or sign a required section of their ballot or envelope, to forgetting to get a witness signature (which some states require for mail-in/early/absentee voting), to having a mismatch issue between the voter’s signature on file and the signature on the ballot.
States with a “cure period” allow voters to correct errors on their ballot through a “cure process.” And like most other aspects of voting and elections, ballot curing policies vary from state-to-state in terms. For example, “not all of the states that have cure periods are required to notify you that your ballot is in need of curing,” Mayer tells Lifehacker. “So always track your ballot after you send it in!”
When a voter is notified about a problem with their ballot, they are also given instructions and a deadline for verifying the ballot is theirs—which, again, depends on the state, and can vary significantly. In Arizona, for example, voters have until the fifth business day after an election to correct a signature, while those in Montana have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to cure their ballot. In most states this involves providing your local election authority an additional signature, while Colorado and New Jersey also require voters to fill out forms as part of the process.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 18 states already had “notice and cure” laws on the books, and at least another 12 states (plus Washington, D.C.) will have them in place by November 3, according to the advocacy organization The Voting Rights Lab.
How does ballot curing work?
Voters will be notified by letter, phone call, or email if they are registered in states required to let people know if their ballot contains errors. “The process is going to vary greatly state-by-state, but that letter or email or phone call should explain what the cure process is for your state,” Mayer says. This includes information on what, exactly, voters need to do in order to ensure that their vote is counted, and their deadline for taking action.
Voting advocacy organizations like Friends Vote Together and Common Cause provide volunteers with the names and contact information of voters who have cast ballots with mistakes that need to be corrected in order for their vote to count. According to Mayer, county election offices mark ballots in need of being cured, and put them in databases accessible to Democratic and Republican parties on the national and state levels, along with several non-partisan and nonprofit groups, including her own. “These are the groups that run the volunteer efforts in helping and alerting voters,” she adds.
What kind of difference could ballot curing make in the election?
A pretty big one, actually. In the 2016 general election, approximately 318,700 mail-in ballots were rejected, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. That figure seems to be increasing: more than 550,000 ballots from across the country were rejected from the presidential primaries earlier this year, NPR reported. “Simply put: Disqualified ballots that don’t get fixed could tip elections up and down the ballot, especially in states where races are tight, like North Carolina and Florida,” Mayer explains.
Is it too late to volunteer to help with ballot curing?
No. In fact, Mayer says that North Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, and Nevada need additional volunteers. “The volunteers help contact voters to alert them that their ballot has a deficiency that needs to be cured, and the steps to do that,” she explains. “Without the help of these volunteers, voters may not know that their ballot will be disqualified.”
Volunteers all work remotely and can do so from any state—not just where they live and/or are registered to vote—and receive training before their first shift.
How do you sign up to volunteer?
If you’re interested in volunteering to assist with the ballot curing process, there are a few ways to go about it. The easiest is to get involved through organizations like Friends Vote Together, which allows users to sign up for volunteer shifts in states that need help the most. Alternatively, Common Cause has an Election Protection volunteer coalition. After signing up on their website, volunteers will be contacted with information on available election protection opportunities.
Another option is to start local. “A good first step is to reach out to local election offices to ask if they are looking for volunteers,” Megan Lewis, executive director of the Voting Rights Lab, told VICE. “State political parties and local organizations may also have ballot cure teams, but these opportunities will depend on the state.” If your state doesn’t have a “notice and cure” policy, you can always volunteer through organizations who will direct you towards states that would welcome your time and effort.