Juneau officials had to reject about 8% of all ballots they received for October’s local election

Deborah Behr confers with Juneau City Clerk Beth McEwen as the Canvass Review Board works to certify the local election on Oct. 19, 2021. The pictured ballots were mailed but not postmarked by the U.S. Postal Service and could not be counted. There were 359 of them at the time, but McEwen said more have trickled in long after the election was certified. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Juneau election officials had to reject more than 700 ballots they received in the October municipal election.

Some ballots will inevitably be rejected in almost any election by mail because of human error, missed deadlines or other problems. But last year, issues with the U.S. Postal Service and local verification requirements led to the extraordinarily high rejection rate.

First off, the final tallies for all seven contests in Juneau’s October election were too lopsided for the rejected ballots to change any outcomes. The closest margin in any race was 916 votes, between Will Muldoon and Aaron Spratt in a school board race.

But for voters, or rather attempted voters like Breehia Mitchell, it still stings.

“So I voted in the election, my very first time with a mail-in ballot. Filled it out, double-checked it. I dropped it in the ballot box,” Mitchell said.

She said she’s voted in almost every election she’s been eligible for over the last 20-some years.

“Probably a couple weeks later, I got a letter saying that my signature didn’t match, could I please fill out this, that and this,”  Mitchell said.

That’s what election officials call a “cure letter.” These letters flag a disqualifying problem with a ballot and offer the recipient options to fix it. In Mitchell’s case, a pair of election workers trained in signature verification decided her signature on her ballot envelope didn’t match the one on file with the state Division of Elections.

Mitchell said she did the corrective paperwork and mailed it off. After the election was certified, she got another letter that said her ballot wasn’t counted because her signatures didn’t match. It’s not clear from the second letter if there was a problem with her most recent paperwork, or if election officials just didn’t get it in time.

“Uh, it made me feel pretty irritated. … What I really wanted to know was, how many other people got the letter?” she said. “You know, like, of the chunk of voters in Juneau, how many didn’t count, you know? 10%? 1%?”

City Clerk Beth McEwen heads up Juneau’s local elections. Data she provided shows election workers rejected about 8% of ballots.

“Very highly disappointing for both voters and for our office,” she said.

McEwen said more election mail kept trickling in long after the election ended, so the final numbers are a bit of a moving target. But in December, she broke down why each of the 700-plus ballots known at that time was rejected.

A handful came from ineligible voters: they were registered to vote in another community, or they sent in more than one ballot, or they weren’t registered to vote in time. A few envelopes were returned without a ballot inside, and a few more ballots were returned without the official election envelope.

About half were rejected because of a failure with the U.S. Postal Service. They showed up after Election Day without a postmark.

This happened to some ballots in the 2020 election, when voters paid their own postage in the city’s first election conducted by mail. But McEwen said it was a much bigger issue in 2021.

“Because our Assembly gave us direction that they wanted us to pay for the return ballots, this year (2021), we changed the envelopes so that it was business reply mail,” McEwen said.

That type of pre-paid postage normally is not postmarked. That’s because the main purpose of postmarks is to keep postage from being reused, like canceling a check. Business reply mail is pre-canceled.

However, a Postal Service spokesperson said there’s been a long-standing policy to postmark election mail, regardless of the type of postage on it, specifically because so many election laws rely on them.

What actually happened was some ballots got postmarked. A lot didn’t.

“But we didn’t learn that until after the fact,” McEwen said.

McEwen said she was in touch with local Postal Service officials before the election and didn’t expect it to be a problem.

The Postal Service referred questions to James Boxrud, a spokesperson based in Denver. In a written statement, Boxrud said, “We acknowledge that circumstances can arise that prevent ballots from receiving a legible postmark.”

He did not elaborate and did not respond to requests for an interview or tour of a local postal facility.

“Without a review of the actual mailpieces involved, the Postal Service is unable to comment further,” he wrote.

McEwen and the Postal Service said they are working together again to make sure the 2022 election goes more smoothly.

That still leaves another big bucket of 323 rejected ballots that were like Breehia Mitchell’s — ballots that had a problem with the voter’s signature or the piece of personal information used to confirm their identity. That’s a date of birth, an Alaska driver’s license number, voter ID number or partial Social Security number.

For comparison, election officials rejected about as many ballots statewide for those reasons in the 2020 general election — a tiny fraction of all ballots cast.

In Juneau’s election, at least 195 people included an incorrect personal identifier or left it blank on their ballot envelope.

State election workers don’t have to compare signatures with a signature on file. For local elections, the Juneau Assembly added that requirement before the city’s first election by mail in 2020.

It’s not clear why these were bigger problems in the city’s second one.

A state elections spokesperson said voters can request copies of documents with their reference signature and update it with a registration form or an absentee ballot application.

Breehia Mitchell said next time, she just plans to vote in person.

“I mean, I’m not, like, bitter or anything. But I wouldn’t vote like that again,” she said.

McEwen said she has some ideas to reduce the number of ballots rejected, like making more ballot drop boxes available. Other proposed election changes will eventually go to the Juneau Assembly for consideration.

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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