A stack of counted and signed ballot envelopes at the Marion County Elections Office on Tuesday, May 19. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A contentious presidential race has voters around the U.S. more concerned than ever about voter suppression, fraud and security ahead of the Nov. 3 election. But voters' own mistakes can prevent them from having a say, even when they mail ballots back.

When Oregonians went to the polls to elect a governor in 2018, more than 2,500 Marion and Polk County residents’ votes weren’t considered.

Elections clerks in both counties said that’s not unusual. Hundreds of ballots in every election don’t get counted because election workers can’t match the signature on the envelope to the signature the state has on record for the voter. And though counties contact voters to let them know of the issue so they can fix it, most never respond.

The good news is it’s easy to make sure your hastily-scrawled John Hancock doesn’t wind up invalidating your vote.

When ballots are received through the mail or from drop boxes, election workers first scan the barcode to make sure it’s a valid envelope. It’s rare, but voters occasionally mail back ballots from previous elections, Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess said.

Next comes signature verification - making sure the signature on the envelope matches the one on file for the voter. It’s a crucial piece of election security to make sure only registered voters are returning ballots, but it’s also the place where voters are most likely to get tripped up.

There are all sorts of reasons a voter’s signature might not match what’s on file, from illness or injury to younger voters whose signatures have changed since they were 18.

For Oregonians registered to vote through the state’s Motor Voter Act, the signature on file for election purposes is the same as the signature on driver’s licenses and can be a useful guide if you’ve gotten used to scrawling a quick X on the card reader at Starbucks.

In Marion County, a machine has a first go, scanning the signature on the voter’s envelope and comparing it to the signature from the voter’s registration. Burgess said the machine is set to only accept ballots where the match is very clear - about half of total envelopes.

The rest go to an election worker who checks the envelope signature against one on file. If they don't think the two match, a more experienced election worker takes a second look. That review uses a database which shows every signature the voter has ever submitted when voting in Oregon, giving them more points of comparison.

“We don’t open any envelope that the signature doesn’t match,” Burgess said.

Polk County, which has far fewer registered voters, uses election workers to manually verify all signatures, said elections clerk Cole Steckley.

If after a manual review, election workers don’t think the signature matches, they’ll set the envelope aside and mail the voter a letter to let them know of the issue. If the signatures didn’t match, the voter will be asked to sign a new voter registration and return it by mail.

If the signature is missing entirely, voters are notified by mail too. Either way, the voter has 14 days after the election to correct the issue.

Voters can also check the status of their ballot on Oregon’s MyVote website, operated by the Secretary of State’s office, which will show when a voter's ballot has been received by the county office, and whether it's been accepted or challenged.

Mismatched or missing signatures are by far the most common reason a voter’s ballot might not get counted. Marion County’s 2018 ballot count showed 2,240 returned ballots that weren’t counted: 1,920 because of a signature mismatch, and 223 because voters forgot to sign the envelope.

In all, that’s about 1.7% of the ballots cast in that election.

Over 700 additional voters had signature issues, but corrected them after notification from the county.

Polk County didn’t count 339 ballots in the 2018 gubernatorial election: 84 because the envelope was not signed, 170 because signatures didn’t match the voter registration record, and 76 because they were received too late. That was 0.9% of the ballots cast.

Most of the remaining ballots not counted in both counties were returned after 8 p.m. on Election Day. Burgess said that problem has been on the rise: in the May primary, 425 ballots were received by mail after the deadline, and 23 were dropped off at ballot drop boxes too late. About half were postmarked on or before Election Day, but the postmark date doesn’t matter. Ballots aren’t counted if they aren’t received by the voting deadline.

Burgess said with turnout forecast at 80 to 85% for this election, he’s concerned more ballots will go uncounted if voters don’t heed the recommendation to mail ballots no later than Oct. 27. After that, use a drop box.

Once a county elections office receives the ballot and verifies the signature matches, the envelope is for the correct election and the voter is registered to vote, the envelope is sliced open.

Election workers remove the ballot, which is usually inside a secrecy sleeve, then pass the ballot to another worker who removes the sleeve. That way, no single worker ever sees the mailing envelope with the voter's name and the corresponding ballot filled in.

At that point, there’s no way to link the ballot back to the envelope it came in - an essential part of the U.S.’s secret voting system.

That also means if your envelope is signed flawlessly but you forgot to put your ballot inside, there’s no way for the county to let you know - or for you to fix the issue after the fact.

Such issues are rare, but they do happen.

Marion County rejected 10 ballot packages in the 2018 race after opening envelopes: six had no ballot inside, three had two ballots inside, and one had a ballot from the wrong election.

Tips to be sure your vote counts, compiled by Salem Reporter

1. Fill out your ballot in black or blue ink so it can be easily read by machine. Election workers can and will count your ballot even if it’s filled out in orange crayon, but it’s a lot of extra work for them. Don’t be that person.

2. The secrecy sleeve that comes with your ballot is optional, and your vote will be counted whether you use it or not. But make you put your ballot in the return envelope with your name on it - not your spouse’s or roommate’s. Household mix-ups aren’t common, but issues like putting two ballots in the same envelope or accidentally signing your roommate’s envelope, not yours, can cause your ballot to be challenged or rejected. A "naked" ballot dropped in a dropbox with no envelope won't be counted.

3. Sign your ballot return envelope on the back on the marked line. This line is the only signature that matters - any writing on the ballot itself or the secrecy sleeve won't be used to verify your identity. Return envelopes come pre-addressed with postage paid, so once signed, your ballot is ready to send back.

4. Mail your ballot back no later than Oct. 27. If you want to return it later, use an official county ballot drop box, and be sure it’s dropped off by 8 p.m. election night. It’s not horseshoes - 8:01 p.m. won’t cut it.

5. Double-check your ballot was received and counted by checking MyVote. If your ballot shows up as “challenged” or an issue is listed, call the county clerk’s office in your county to learn what the issue is and how to fix it.

6. If you get a piece of mail from the county elections office after the election, don’t ignore it! They’re likely trying to notify you about a signature issue. Send back the form, show up in-person or call if you’re not sure what you need to do. You have until Nov. 17 to correct a signature issue. Once you do, your vote will be counted.

ELECTION DETAILS

• Register to vote online or update your registration HERE.

• Last day to register: Tuesday, Oct. 13

• NOTE: Update your voter registration if you have moved; ballots are not forwarded like other mail.

• Update the mailing address for your ballot if you will be away from home. You can change your mailing address online here.

• Ballots mailed to voters: Wednesday, Oct. 14

• Last day to mail ballot back: Tuesday, Oct. 27

• Election Day: Tuesday, Nov. 3. Ballots must be returned by 8 p.m. to a drop box or county elections office.

Voters with questions or who don't receive a ballot should contact their county elections office. Marion County can be reached at (503) 588-5041 and Polk County at (503) 623-9217.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.