TURES COLUMN: Is the rejection of voting ballots a partisan affair?

Published 10:30 am Thursday, March 17, 2022

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At the beginning of the movie “Selma,” Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, is denied the right to vote with a Jim Crow-era impossible political quiz to solve. With the recent controversy over the record number of ballot applications rejected in Texas, my students investigated whether absentee or mail-in ballot application denials are a partisan affair.

Texas has had rejections for a high number of applications for mail-in ballots, thanks to changes adopted by the legislature in Senate Bill 1. “Republicans in the state Legislature overhauled Texas’ election code last year … voters are now asked to include some form of identification — such as a driver’s license number — on mail ballot applications and the envelope they use to return their completed mail ballots. The law also limited early voting hours and empowered partisan poll watchers,” reported Jane C. Timm and Anjali Huynh with NBC News. That huge overhaul came despite scant evidence of voter fraud in 2020. The Houston Chronicle found only 16 minor cases among millions of votes cast, according to Timm and Hyunh.

It made me wonder whether absentee mail-in ballot applications in 2020 were more likely to be rejected by states that voted for the Republicans, instead of the Democratic Party in the presidential contest. My students, Gabriel Cofield, Cooper Dolhancyk, Caleb Fuller, Roderick Kirkland, Jackson Lamb, Shedrick Lindsey, Malachi Parker, Ukari Parkmond and Bryant Sanchez Mora joined me in looking at the politics of such ballot rejections. And this is what we found.

Ballotpedia reveals that the five states with the highest rates of rejected absentee or mail-in ballots were Arkansas, New Mexico, New York, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Two of those states voted Democratic and the other three voted Republican. Among the states that rejected the fewest absentee or mail-in ballots (Rhode Island, Maryland, North Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming), half voted Republican and the other half voted Democratic in 2020.

We also looked at trends, such as increases in such ballot rejections between 2016 and 2020.  Among those that increased their rejection rate, four of the five voted Republican, though New Mexico, which voted for Biden in 2020, topped the list. Of those that decreased their number of such rejected ballots, half picked Trump (Kentucky, West Virginia, Alaska) while the other half, which rejected fewer ballots, opted for Biden (Georgia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island).

At this point, the class was mostly done, and my U.S. Government class could have left early on Friday.

“But what about those states which passed tougher voter ID laws?” two asked (one of the two wore a Reagan-Bush ’84 cap to class because he knows I like political paraphernalia). Nobody in person or online moved from their computer screens, as the two shared NCSL data on such laws.  Again, they found a mix of state identification laws, including Mississippi’s which has a tough voter ID law, but also permits a path for those who have religious objections to being photographed! We found reasons for refusals other than the voter ID, such as signature matches, and incomplete applications, so even states without voter ID laws can be tough on applicants too.

Our LaGrange College researchers wound up rejecting the hypothesis that mail-in or absentee ballot snubs were more likely to be conducted by Republican-leaning states more than Democratic-leaning states.  But in giving up some of their free time on a Friday, they were able to extend their findings to voter ID laws, learning a lesson almost as important as our research topic: the importance of testing arguments, going beyond the original assignment to get some more answers, demonstrating great enthusiasm about the science of elections and voting. 

Overall, they saw the importance of testing assumptions, not just making them, about elections.