Will your mail-in vote be counted? How to avoid 'naked ballot' problems, other issues

From not using the right color ink to missing deadlines, here are some of the ways your vote could be rejected and how to avoid those issues.


Naked ballots, receiving incorrect absentee ballots and other issues are raising questions whether they could affect this year's presidential election.

Voters can help ensure their ballots count by avoiding mistakes like not following mail-in instructions. It's especially important given record numbers of mail-in ballots given the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump launching baseless attacks against the process.

Above video: Inside one warehouse where absentee ballots are received

Errors occur during every election, but experts say there should be adequate time between now and the close of polls on Nov. 3 to resolve them.

Elections officials, ballot suppliers and security researchers say such problems do occur with some regularity. They don’t indicate fraud, they say, but rather human error.


Ballots that don't use a secrecy sleeve as required by their state can be rejected. They're considered "naked ballots."

There are 16 states that require a ballot to have a secrecy sleeve, sometimes called a privacy sleeve, inner envelope or identification envelope, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The organization lists those states as Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

The so-called naked ballots have become a huge concern for Democrats in Pennsylvania since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in September that ballots had to be rejected if not enclosed in the proper secrecy envelope.


“With vote-by-mail requests surging, it’s important that every voter using a mail ballot for the first time has all the information they need so that their ballot will be counted, including the importance of sealing their ballot in the secrecy envelope," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement.

Former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson said naked ballots are just one of the ways people can “mess up” their absentee or mail-in ballot.

“They’re especially tough in environments where you abruptly shift to vote by mail," Grayson said. “The campaigns can play a great role here. There are some voter education things they can do.”


About 100,000 absentee ballots with the wrong names and addresses printed on the return envelopes were sent to voters in Brooklyn, N.Y., in late September. Ballots returned in envelopes bearing different names would risk being voided.

The city’s election board blamed the ballot-printer, Phoenix Graphics of Rochester, N.Y., which said without elaborating that it “experienced mechanical-inserting issues” in what was its first ballot-printing run for the affected counties.

Meanwhile, 2,100 voters in Los Angeles were mailed ballots missing the presidential race and nearly 7,000 voters in Teaneck, N.J., were mailed ballots with the wrong Congressional race. Teaneck said a programming error by an outside vendor was to blame.

And one Ohio county sent wrong ballots to 50,000 voters. Secretary of State Frank LaRose said that the election board for Franklin County, home to Columbus and 880,000 registered voters, made “a serious mistake." Officials said all affected voters will receive corrected replacement ballots.


Amber McReynolds, a former Denver elections director and CEO of the nonprofit National Vote at Home Institute, said such errors are more likely to happen in states with less experience in mail-in voting than vote-by-mail veterans Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Hawaii.

Older machines that insert ballots and return envelopes inside the larger envelopes mailed to voters can get jammed or otherwise send the process askew. Errors can be identified before they get mailed out by auditing a certain percentage. Newer “intelligent inserters” are less prone to error.

“It’s (typically) an operator making a mistake and just not turning something on, as simple as that sounds,” said Jeff Ellington, president of the Phoenix-based Runbeck Election Services, a major ballot printer. The insertion process is the most complicated part of vote-by-mail, he said.


Certainly not, the experts say. Take the Los Angeles County snag. County elections spokesman Mike Sanchez said every affected voter has already been mailed a corrected ballot.

“You can make the argument that if this same mistake happened on Election Day, there would be no time to recover,” said Ellington, the Runbeck president.

Doug Jones, a University of Iowa election technology expert, said mistakes are inevitable in a complex general election. His bigger concern is the tendency of some election officials to rely heavily on outside contractors, for mail-in and in-person voting.

“When we outsource, we lose transparency and we lose accountability,” he said.


Election officials can reject ballots for a variety of issues. It's because our safeguards seek to preserve the integrity of our elections.

Whether it's using a required color ink for a pen, signing a flap of an envelope or following other requirements, make sure to carefully read and obey instructions, otherwise your vote could be dismissed by election officials. That includes meeting deadlines for postmarking envelopes and having your signature match the one on file.

It's vital that voters who use a mail-in ballot to make sure they fill it out carefully, complete all the paperwork and do so accurately, said Steven Huefner, a law professor at The Ohio State University who served as an attorney for the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2000.

"The process is really cautious to avoid including unlawful votes," he said.

Because of the volume of absentee and mail-in ballots this election, among other factors, it's also important to mail in your ballot as soon as possible.


If voters who requested absentee ballots change their minds and try to vote on Election Day, they may run afoul of a thicket of rules that vary from state to state. In many states, switching from absentee to in-person requires a series of steps to cancel the absentee ballot. Voters may be asked to cast provisional ballots that take longer to process. All these last-minute changes take more resources and more time and introduce the possibility for errors.

Many states don't make changing your mind easy. In North Carolina, voters who have requested an absentee ballot need to have a witness signature with it if they want their ballot counted.

In Pennsylvania, voters who have requested an absentee ballot can only vote on Election Day if they bring the entire ballot package to return at the polls. Otherwise, their votes will be provisional.


Did you know that not all states require an ID to vote? Just 35 request or require some form of identification, while the rest use methods like a signature. States have different laws on whether you need your ID with you or what kind of ID it should be, so be sure to look it up.

Even if your state doesn't require an ID to vote, it's best to bring one if you have one. Being over-prepared is just another layer of protection against voter suppression.

And if you don't have a driver's license, there's usually another valid form of ID, such as a passport, another government-issued ID or a utility bill.

CNN contributed to this report.