Tens Of Thousands Of D.C. Mail Ballots Were Returned As ‘Undeliverable’ In Recent Elections

By Martin Austermuhle

Tens of thousands of mail ballots sent out to registered D.C. voters ahead of the June primary and November general elections were returned as undeliverable, a reality that critics say stems from inaccurate and outdated information in the city’s voter registry but which election experts say isn’t completely unexpected given D.C.’s recent adoption of mail voting.

According to data obtained from the D.C. Board of Elections, 402,323 ballots were proactively mailed out to voters ahead of the June primary, of which 65,398 were returned as undeliverable. Ahead of the November general election, 508,543 ballots were mailed out, and 87,921 were returned as undeliverable.

That amounts to undeliverable rates of 16% and 17%, respectively, higher than the 11% undeliverable rate D.C. faced in the Nov. 2020 general election and well above the national average of 1.4%.

“It’s going in the wrong direction,” said Dorothy Brizill, a longtime D.C. elections watchdog, on the increase in the number of mail ballots that went undelivered from 2020 to 2022.

“No, it is not usual,” said Gerry Langeler, the director of research at the National Vote at Home Institute, about D.C.’s rate of undeliverable mail ballots. “Something in the low single-digit [percentages] would not be surprising reflecting the fact that many voters move during the course of a year, and may have moved close enough to Election Day that they did not update their voter registration in time to be captured in the main registration database before the mailing occurred.”

Still, Langeler says D.C.’s high undeliverable rates are not wholly surprising, given that the city only starting mailing every registered voter a ballot ahead of the Nov. 2020 election as part of a broader strategy to address how to adapt voting to the COVID-19 pandemic. This fall the D.C. Council passed a bill that makes mail voting a permanent fixture of the city’s elections moving forward.

“D.C. is new to this mailed-out ballot-to-all-registered-voters model, so the fact they had much higher numbers is not a shock. The good news is that with ballots not being forwardable, every returned one becomes an opportunity to clean up the database,” he said.

The state of D.C.’s voter registry has long been a point of concern for some local activists and watchdogs, who say that it is full of inaccurate information and still includes the names of voters who may have long moved out of the city. In 2016, the D.C. Auditor found that the voter registry contained a number of inaccuracies and that the elections board wasn’t following local and federal law to fix them. Nikolas Schiller, a political activist who has worked on multiple ballot initiatives (including Initiative 82, which voters approved in November), says he regularly had to deal with official voter lists that included names of people who no longer resided in D.C.

“I was the field director for [the Initiative 82] campaign, and I had [staff] coming back to me and saying, ‘There’s six people registered to vote at this address, but I knock on the door and not one of them lives there anymore,’” he said. “[The elections board] is supposed to have a system where if someone dies, if someone moves, and if someone registered to vote in another state, that they’re supposed to be able to communicate with those states and remove people from the voter rolls. And it hasn’t really happened.”

D.C. has long been a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center, better known as ERIC, a non-profit organization that regularly collects voter registration and motor vehicle licensing data from 33 member states to allow them to identify voters who have moved, died, or may have multiple registrations — including in different states. Earlier this year, though, election officials said that a years-long bureaucratic snafu had made it difficult for the city to consistently submit voter data to ERIC.

Speaking at an elections board meeting in late November, board chairman Gary Thompson said that getting the voter registry updated is a priority for him. “That’s at the top of my list, because it feeds so many things,” he said. “It’s important that we try to be as accurate as possible, but it’s a moving river in a transient city.”

Monica Evans, the director of the elections office, declined to speak to DCist/WAMU, but said at that same meeting that some of the problems stemmed from the U.S. Postal Service. A spokesman for the office did not provide more details, but said it will start sending out notices to voters for whom mail ballots were returned as undeliverable to encourage them to update their registration information. If they do not respond, those voters can be declared inactive and eventually be removed from the voter rolls, a process that under the law can take several years.

Election experts and officials in jurisdictions that have long used mail voting say one of the benefits of the system is that undeliverable mail ballots, when coupled with systems like ERIC and the National Change of Address database, allow for better updating and maintenance of voter registries. Tim Scott, the elections director for Multnomah County, Oregon, which has used mail voting for years, told DCist/WAMU that his undeliverable rate every election is between 2% and 3%.

“I attribute our low undeliverable rate to regular list maintenance,” he wrote in an email. “In Oregon we check our list monthly against ERIC and NCOA, and we get updates from Oregon DMV daily. We also mail ballots to all voters every election which also provides feedback and an opportunity to update registration records on a regular basis.”

“You do it enough cycles and your rolls get better and better,” said Phil Keisling, a former secretary of state for Oregon who championed the state’s adoption of mail voting in the 1990s.

Read more: DCIST