Ballot Verification: The First Step Toward Securing Free and Fair Elections

by Voting Rights Lab

June 24, 2024

Our elections are built with a set of rigorous checks and balances in place, ensuring we have accurate, fair, and secure elections every step of the way. Despite the strength of our elections, we’ve seen a rise in attempts to sow distrust, division, and fear in the wake of the 2020 election. As we head towards November, it’s more important than ever to understand the existing systems and processes that ensure the validity of every voter and accuracy of every ballot cast.

Understanding the ballot verification process is critical to building confidence in the strength, accuracy, and durability of our elections. In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, trained election officials take numerous steps prescribed by law to ensure that each vote has been cast by an eligible voter.

Each State Has Consistent Processes for Verifying Ballots

In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, teams of trained election officials go through a meticulous list of steps prescribed by state law to ensure that each ballot has been lawfully cast by an eligible voter.

Voter Verification for In-Person Voting

Voters who cast their ballots in person undergo verification procedures to prove their identity. State verification procedures may include:

  • Non-documentary identification procedures, such as signing a poll book or providing significant personal information; and
  • Reviewing official documents presented by each voter, such as utility bills, pay stubs, lease agreements, and/or a photo ID.*

*While ensuring the validity of every ballot is critical, it’s also important to note that research has shown that photo ID requirements can disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color and do not contribute to election integrity more than other identity verification procedures.

Voter Verification for Mail Ballots

Voters who cast their ballots by mail must also complete similarly rigorous verification procedures. In fact, every state requires some type of envelope verification, where elections officials check the outer envelope of mail ballots to ensure it contains all required information, such as the voter’s name, address, and signature.

Most States Verify Mail Ballots by Signature

In at least 31 states, election officials compare the signature on a mail ballot with the voter’s signature on file, often from their voter registration form or previous elections. Many states require bipartisan teams to verify signatures and include several layers of checks for questioned signatures.

While most states have coalesced around signature verification requirements – just as signature verification is sufficient for important tasks like tax filing – eight states require voters to include identification information with mail ballots. Georgia, Texas, and Virginia have changed their laws since 2020 to require voters to write a state-issued ID number or the last four digits of their SSN on the ballot envelope. North Carolina and Arkansas take the extreme measure of requiring voters to enclose a copy of their photo ID in their mail ballot envelopes.

Unlike most signature verification laws, mail ballot identification laws have proven to be quite burdensome for voters and election administrators alike. For example, in the first Texas election conducted under these new verification requirements, at least 18,000 ballots were rejected in just 16 of the state’s 20 counties with the most registered voters. One county saw more than one-in-five mail ballots rejected.

States Leverage Technology for Additional Review

Nearly all states leverage technology to track a ballot through the mail, verify its authenticity upon receipt, and limit opportunities for the ballot to be diverted while in transit between an election office and a voter. These technologies provide a way for voters to avoid common mistakes that could result in the violation of voting laws.

Eighteen states specifically use barcode tracking software, which provides unique barcodes on ballots and return envelopes, to further assist in the verification of mail ballots. Currently, eight states and Washington, D.C. use BallotTrax statewide for both federal and state elections, 12 states use BallotTrax in select counties only, and six states use Ballot Scout in state and/or county elections.  

Ballot Curing Adds Extra Layer of Accuracy for Mail Ballots

Thirty-two states undergo additional ballot verification measures through a process called “cure.” During the initial verification of mail ballots, election officials may identify return envelopes with simple, common mistakes such as missing signatures, signature mismatches, incomplete voter information, or improperly sealed envelopes. Cure processes allow election officials to promptly contact the affected voters and give them instructions on how to correct the otherwise disqualifying issue, along with the specific timeframe allowed by state law. Once a voter submits their ballot envelope corrections, election officials re-verify the cured documentation to ensure all issues have been properly resolved. Successfully cured ballots are then included in the final vote tally.

Ballot curing has received bipartisan support around the country, with at least 16 states either creating or improving their cure process since the 2020 election. And many states have adopted ballot pre-processing policies, which allow election officials to examine the return envelope to determine whether to accept, reject, or notify the voter of an opportunity to cure their ballot in advance of Election Day.

Provisional Ballots are Subject to Multiple Layers of Review Before Verification

Provisional ballots are subject to verification after polls close and provide a critical fail-safe mechanism for in-person Election Day voters whose eligibility is for some reason in question. This process ensures that eligible voters are not disenfranchised due to administrative errors or discrepancies, while also upholding the integrity and accuracy of the election.

A voter may be eligible for a provisional ballot if they encounter an issue at their polling location, such as forgetting to bring their ID to the polls, changing their address without updating their registration, or requesting a mail ballot but not returning it. During these circumstances, the voter must take an additional step of verifying their identity to election officials by a certain deadline defined by state law after Election Day.

Provisional ballots are kept separate from regular ballots and are not counted until the voter’s eligibility is verified. Election officials review provisional ballots after Election Day, checking the voter’s registration status, verifying their identity, and ensuring that the ballot was lawfully cast. Only if the necessary verification steps are completed and the voter’s eligibility and their ballot is confirmed will the provisional ballot be included in the final vote count.

The Bottom Line: Only Verified Votes Count

Our elections are fair and secure because of the many safeguards in place to ensure that every ballot is legitimate and counted accurately. Ballot verification processes, like those used for both in-person and mail ballots, provide confidence to both voters and election officials that each voter is who they say they are and has the freedom to cast their ballot. The ballot cure process and steps taken to verify provisional ballots give election officials additional tools and the public additional confidence in the accuracy of U.S. election results.

However, our robust system of checks and balances does not end when the ballot is verified. The following measures come after ballot verification:

  • Counting: Local election officials securely count ballots. This is often conducted by bipartisan teams in the presence of bipartisan observers.
  • Canvassing: Election professionals verify the accuracy of the count reported to them from the polling and central count locations, and also verify that processes required by law were followed in the conduct of the election.
  • Certification: The body vested by state law with the authority to declare the winners of an election does so according to the results reported by the canvassing authority – a non-discretionary, ministerial act. Often, the certification authority is an entirely different entity than the canvassing authority. Read our backgrounder on the election certification process here.

You can look up the ballot verification and curing processes in a specific state through our State Voting Rights Tracker.