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1 in 5 mail ballots rejected in botched NYC primary

New York City expanded mail-in voting, but rejected 84,000 ballots in June.

More than 1 in 5 mail-in ballots were rejected in New York City during the state primary June 23, the city’s certified election results revealed this week.

City election officials rejected 84,000 ballots — 21 percent of all those received by election officials. More than 403,000 ballots were returned to election officials, according to city data, but only about 319,000 absentee ballots were counted, the certified results showed. The figure was first reported by the New York Post.

“It’s nuts. That is way too high,” said Justin Levitt, a former Department of Justice voting rights official and now a professor at Loyola Law School.

"The rejection rates shows, I think, two things running headlong into each other," he said. "They show some very real problems with New York laws. ... It also shows the fact that New Yorkers aren’t used to voting by mail."

Amid a nationwide expansion of mail-in voting that's seen tens of thousands of absentee ballots rejected over often small errors, New York stands out for a stunningly high rejection rate.

For comparison, Los Angeles County processed nearly four times as many ballots but rejected only 17,743 ballots, according to state data provided to NBC News. Their mail-in ballot rejection rate was 1.53 percent.

Advocates said they weren't surprised: New York state has long had restrictive mail voting laws only allowing voters with certain valid excuses to cast absentee ballots and rejecting a huge percentage of those ballots returned. In 2018's general election according to a U.S. Election Assistance Commission report, New York state rejected more than 34,000 ballots — 14 percent of those submitted.

But this year, the system was overloaded when the state opened up voting by mail to everyone to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and saw a tenfold increase in ballot requests.

The result? A headline-making mess. Two congressional races were undecided for weeks, President Donald Trump held up the slow counting as a reason states shouldn't expand mail voting in November. The U.S. Postal Service, unused to the deluge of prepaid mailers, reportedly left postmarks off ballots, leaving thousands of them to be rejected because it was unclear they were sent on time.

Voting rights advocates sued in July to demand reform to the state's absentee ballot system, particularly calling for a process for voters who make small errors on their ballots to be given a chance to fix them. The litigation is ongoing, but the state Legislature took the issue up this summer and passed a bill to immediately create a cure process that would give voters a week to fix small errors on their ballots, like a missing signature. The governor's office did not respond to an inquiry about when the bill will be signed, but advocates are hopeful.

“That is a huge step forward and should make a big difference, especially if implemented well,” said Danielle Lang, co-director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Fund and the lead attorney on the lawsuit against the state's absentee ballot processes.

The city Board of Elections did not explain the reasons for the rejected signatures, but Lang said she expects "a really high percentage" of the ballots were rejected because they arrived late.

“I think we should be in better shape in November than the disaster we saw in the primary and the really high rates of rejection that we can all agree are unacceptable," she added.

Levitt said that with the presidential election just months away, one of the most important things election officials can do is communicate: That is, educate voters about how to properly fill out a ballot, work with election officials on improving their processes, and communicate better with the the post office, so that ballots arrive on time and with postmarks indicating when they were sent.

"Whatever the problem is, real systematic voter outreach makes a difference," he told NBC News.

CORRECTION (Aug. 10, 2020, 12:19 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of a group involved in a lawsuit over New York’s absentee ballot process. It is the Campaign Legal Center, not the Campaign Legal Fund.