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Digging into the Georgia Primary

Brennan Center analysis of Georgia’s primary finds that nonwhite voters’ mail ballots were rejected at much higher rates than white voters’ mail ballots.

Last Updated: September 10, 2020
Published: August 24, 2020

On June 9, voters in Geor­gia cast their ballots in the pres­id­en­tial local primary contests as well as two seats for the state supreme court. In the lead-up to the contest, we analyzed discrep­an­cies in who was request­ing mail absentee ballots. Past research had indic­ated that racial minor­it­ies were less likely to request mail ballots than other voters in Geor­gia. We showed that, at least in Geor­gia, those trends held true even during a pandemic when all voters were sent absentee ballot request forms.

In this analysis, we examined data from the Geor­gia primary, cover­ing 129 of 159 counties, to  discover why — and whose — mail ballots are rejec­ted as well as which voters took advant­age of early in-person options. We found that:

  1. A much smal­ler share of white voters had their mail ballots rejec­ted than nonwhite voters.
  2. For all racial groups, most rejec­ted ballots were rejec­ted because they were received after the dead­line.
  3. Black voters were more likely to vote early and in person than white voters.
  4. More than 8 percent of voters who reques­ted mail ballots voted in person. This was espe­cially common among Black voters.

During our analysis, we discovered that the state misre­por­ted some absentee ballot rejec­tions. As such, the find­ings presen­ted below exclude counties we have reason to believe had erro­neous data. A discus­sion of these limit­a­tions and how we dealt with them can be found at this bottom of this piece.

How Did Voters Parti­cip­ate? foot­note1_scplmbp 1 As in our last analysis, we rely here on data from L2 Polit­ical and the Secret­ary of State’s office. By link­ing these two data sources, we can identify the racial char­ac­ter­ist­ics of voters who reques­ted and cast mail absentee ballots.

In the figure below, we break out how parti­cipants of differ­ent racial and ethnic groups cast their ballots in the 2020 pres­id­en­tial primary. More than half of all ballots were cast by mail — an enorm­ous increase over the 2016 general elec­tion, when just 5.2 percent of voters voted by mail.

Participation Methods

 

Although consid­er­ably fewer Black voters voted by mail than white voters, a larger share of them took advant­age of early in-person voting. This increase, however, was not enough to offset the lower mail ballot usage: although just 33.7 percent of white voters cast their ballots in person on elec­tion day, 40 percent of Black voters did so.

Mail Ballot Rejec­tion Rates

The figure below shows the share of returned mail ballots that were either rejec­ted or marked as spoiled.

Percent of Returned Mail Ballots Rejected/Spoiled

Although 1.2 percent of mail ballots over­all were rejec­ted, there are substan­tial differ­ences by race. Just 0.9 percent of mail ballots cast by white voters were rejec­ted, but mail ballots cast by Black, Latino, and Asian voters saw rejec­tion rates of 1.6, 1.9, and 2.4 percent. These discrep­an­cies are troub­ling, and elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors should work to under­stand what is driv­ing them.
 

As the figure below shows, mail ballots were rejec­ted for differ­ent reas­ons for voters among differ­ent racial and ethnic groups. One thing, however, stands out clearly: more than 70 percent of all ballots rejec­ted were rejec­ted because they were returned late. After late returns, miss­ing signa­tures were the most common rejec­tion reason for each group.
 

This points to the need for better advocacy about when mail ballots need to be returned. There were also stor­ies before the elec­tion about major back­logs in parts of the state like Fulton County, poten­tially delay­ing when voters received their ballots. Elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors must make sure that ballots are sent out early enough that voters have a chance to fill them out, mail them, and have them received by admin­is­trat­ors in time to be coun­ted.

Percent of Mail Ballots Rejected by Reason

Who Voted in Person?

The figure below demon­strates that more than 110,000 voters who reques­ted mail ballots even­tu­ally voted in person. This was espe­cially common among Black voters. It is unclear why so many people who reques­ted mail ballots chose to vote in another way. They may have been nervous about receiv­ing their mail ballot in time to cast it; they may have never received their ballot at all; or they may have simply chosen to vote a differ­ent way. Advoc­ates should consider reach­ing out to some of these voters to under­stand why they made their decision. If there were racial dispar­it­ies in who never received a mail ballot, this needs to be addressed.

Percent of Mail Ballot Requesters Who Voted in Person

Conclu­sion

Past research indic­ates that voters of color are more likely to have their mail ballots rejec­ted. It was unclear if those histor­ical trends would continue in the context of a pandemic, when so many more voters cast mail ballots. Evid­ence from Geor­gia indic­ates that these dispar­it­ies are in fact continu­ing. Black voters’ mail ballot rejec­tion rate was almost double those of white voters.

Across the board, nearly three-quar­ters of rejec­ted ballots were rejec­ted because they were returned late. As the United States Postal Service grapples with severe fund­ing short­ages, the threat of mail delays and late-returned ballots is only likely to grow this Novem­ber. Elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors must deliver ballots to voters early enough that the can be returned in time, and the federal govern­ment must adequately fund the USPS so that it can deliver ballots (both to and from voters) in a timely manner.

Finally, admin­is­trat­ors cannot simply focus on vote by mail while ignor­ing the import­ance on in-person options. A smal­ler share of nonwhite voters used vote by mail in the primary, indic­at­ing that these voters would be dispro­por­tion­ately harmed by shift­ing resources away from in-person options. A larger share of racial minor­it­ies used early in-person options than white voters, indic­at­ing that there are safe altern­at­ives to elec­tion-day voting for these voters. Elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors should be sure to provide them in safe and healthy options.

Data Issues

This analysis was origin­ally published using the data avail­able from the Geor­gia secret­ary of state’s website. Analyz­ing that data, we concluded that nonwhite voters had their mail ballots rejec­ted at a higher rate than white voters; that most ballots were rejec­ted because they were received after the dead­line; that Black voters were more likely to vote early and in person than white voters; and that 9 percent of voters who reques­ted mail ballots ended up voting in person, and this was more common among Black voters.

Our original analysis has been updated because there were reports that the data on the state website was not entirely reli­able. Our revised find­ings, after adjust­ing for errors in the state’s data, look essen­tially the same as the original.

There were 50 counties that repor­ted reject­ing no absentee ballots because they arrived late. Because Fulton County acknow­ledged that the ballots that were rejec­ted because they arrived late are not noted in the data provided by the secret­ary of state, we decided to dig into this issue. We called each of the counties where the state’s data indic­ates that no ballots were rejec­ted because they arrived late.

We were able to speak with repres­ent­at­ives from 38 of the 50 counties. Of these 38 counties, 17 told us that some rejec­ted ballots were not included in the state’s data — indic­at­ing that the data from the state should not be accep­ted as is. Twenty-one of these counties, however, told us that the data was correct and that they had received no ballots after the dead­line.

This modi­fied analysis excludes the counties that confirmed their data was incor­rect. To avoid acci­dent­ally includ­ing erro­neous data, we also exclude the counties we were unable to contact. We also remove Polk County, which iden­ti­fied all absentee ballots that were not returned as “rejec­ted.” Over­all, this analysis includes counties that are home to more than 80 percent of Geor­gi­a’s voters.

Again, the exclu­sion of these counties does not appear to have a mean­ing­ful impact on the racial rejec­tion gap. Below, we present the rejec­tion rates when we accept the state’s data “as-is,” even though we know it has some errors. The racial rejec­tion gap narrows very slightly. The rejec­tion rate for white voters was 0.9 percent under both scen­arios, but the rejec­tion rate for Black voters increased from 1.5 percent to 1.6 percent when we excluded these counties. This is prob­ably because we excluded Fulton County, which under­coun­ted absentee rejec­tions and is home to many Black voters.

Percent of Returned Mail Ballots Rejected/Spoiled

It is also unlikely that the exclu­sion of these counties is arti­fi­cially creat­ing a racial rejec­tion gap. If we assume that the mail ballot rejec­tion rate was 1.6 percent for Black voters in these counties (the same as the rest of the state), they would have needed to reject more than 4.8 percent of white voters’ mail ballots — more than five times the rate at which the rest of the state rejec­ted these ballots — in order for the rejec­tion rate gap to disap­pear.

End Notes