Few ballots rejected, but rejection rates vary by county, gender and race, performance audit finds

Feb 1, 2022

Today, the Office of the Washington State Auditor released a legislatively-mandated performance audit of ballot rejection in 10 Washington State counties during the 2020 general election.

In the counties reviewed, election officials followed the law in determining whether to reject a ballot. However, the likelihood that a voter's ballot will be rejected varied greatly by county. And ballots cast by some demographic groups – including younger voters, male voters, and those belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups – have higher rejection rates than others.

“A voter's race, ethnicity, age or gender should not play any role in whether their ballots are rejected,” said State Auditor Pat McCarthy. “Our auditors specifically looked at signature matches, one area of ballot counting that requires subjective human judgment.

“While auditors found no evidence of bias, as a former county election official, I know that public confidence in elections is essential to our democracy. This report also details innovative practices, including approaches to voter education, which may reduce rejection rates and help ensure every legitimate ballot is counted.”

In reviewing the 2020 general election in Washington, auditors found that fewer than 30,000 ballots out of 4.2 million cast were rejected, a statewide rejection rate of 0.72 percent. The county where a ballot was cast was the most significant variable, with the highest rejection rates more than 1.2 percent, and the lowest 0.25 percent or lower.

Although less significant than county variability, auditors found demographic factors linked to ballot rejection. The rejection rates for ballots cast by Black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander Washingtonians were all higher than 1.2 percent, while the rejection rate for ballots cast by white Washingtonians was 0.63 percent.

There were few discernable patterns in county practices to explain the different rejection rates. The counties reviewed met most legal requirements and they implemented many leading practices to reduce ballot rejections.

Other researchers have identified signature matching as a possible source of rejection variability. Our auditors specifically considered this possibility when reviewing a random sample of accepted ballots and those rejected for mismatched signatures. However, decisions by county elections staff examined showed no patterns that indicated a bias toward any particular group.

The full report can be found here. The Office also created a guide to leading practices that may help reduce ballot rejection rates here.