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Some election officials rejecting mail-in ballots lack formal training

Travis County rejected about 1% of all mail-in ballots during the 2016 presidential election, and Williamson County rejected about 2%.

AUSTIN, Texas — Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s new order, 5501 Airport Blvd. is the only place in Travis County where you can drop off your mail-in ballot if you were approved for one but don’t want to use the U.S. Postal Service.

But the KVUE Defenders learned there’s a chance your mail-in vote won’t be counted, and not just because it came in too late. 

“It’s extensive and it's tedious, manual work," Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said. "It's behind the scenes.”

DeBeauvoir said county election officials work hard to keep the vote-by-mail process secure. But that means sometimes ballots are rejected and never counted.

In the 2016 presidential election, 222 of 23,379 mail-in ballots were rejected in Travis County. That’s about 1%. And in Williamson County, 225 of 11,463 mail-in ballots were rejected, which is about 2%.

"The No. 1 reason for rejecting the ballot is the voter forgets to sign your signature across the seal flap," DeBeauvoir said.

But there’s another reason your ballot might be rejected. 

When you submit a mail-in ballot in Texas, county election officials compare your signature on the envelope to the signature on file with your application to vote by mail. If they decide it doesn’t match, it could be rejected and your vote won’t count.         

“That’s how we prove up that as best as we can, that the person that applied for the ballot is the person that voted that ballot, completed that ballot, put it in the envelope and sent it back," Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis said.

Davis said the people who verify your signature aren’t trained signature experts. In fact, they hardly receive any formal training at all.

"What concerns me about that is by law, and it's a matter of law, there's not a whole lot that I can do about it," Davis said. "Signature comparison can be a very subjective thing."

Two people sued the Texas Secretary of State last year after their mail-in ballots were rejected because election officials decided their signatures didn’t match. As a result, their votes didn’t count. 

But they won that lawsuit, and a judge recently ordered some statewide changes.

If a signature doesn’t match, election officials have to compare signatures on file for the past six elections. If it still doesn’t match, officials have to notify the voter and give them a chance to fix the problem. 

Under the plan, voters have to be mailed notices of rejection within one day of a mismatch. And those who provided phone numbers on their applications have to be called at least once within one day of the decision.

DeBeauvoir said Travis County officials do get some training, and she’s confident the process is reliable.

"We're having two people look at this signature comparison," DeBeauvoir said. "And if one of them says it's OK and one of them says it's not OK, a third person gets called in to judge the ballot or comes in and makes a final determination."

Another tip if you’re voting by mail: Don’t mail your ballot in the same envelope as someone else’s, even if it’s coming from the same address.

Keep in mind, if you plan to drop off your mail-in ballot in person, you have to do it yourself, otherwise, your ballot will get rejected.

If you want to vote by mail, there’s still time, but you have to be approved and you have to send in your ballot by mail application by Oct. 23. 

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