Note: Mail-in voters only need to sign their carrier envelope.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect, sicken and kill thousands of Texans, many are looking at ways to limit their public interactions, including how they cast their ballots.
More voters than ever before are reaching out to the League of Women Voters of Dallas about mail-in ballots, said Barbara Larkin, the vice president of voter services.
"People are showing up to our registration tables with vote-by-mail questions, which that's never really happened before," she explained.
She said it feels like there's an increased volume, particularly with more first-time vote-by-mail voters.
By Oct. 1, more than 65,000 absentee ballots had already been sent out in Tarrant County. In 2016, a little less than 44,000 total were sent to voters.
Unprecedented numbers of mail-in ballots are expected to be received across the country this election cycle, with many bracing for possible vote count delays caused by the influx.
But mail-in ballots can be trickier to fill out properly, even for experienced voters.
"Typically the vote-by-mail instructions are fairly confusing," Larkin said. "There's three different envelopes involved. People are very confused, and some are people who have voted for years."
She wants voters to read the instructions twice, "even if they're long," and get it done as soon as they can.
RELATED: Here’s how to vote by mail in Texas
So WFAA reached out to local election officials and the Secretary of State's office to find out what some of the most common mistakes voters make and what to do to make sure their votes count.
1. Don't wait. Allow more time than you think you need to submit your ballot.
Voters who wait until late in the election cycle to request an application or to return their ballots don't always have enough time to make sure their ballot gets to their local elections department by the deadline, a spokesperson with the Dallas County Elections Department said.
Those who wish to vote by mail must ensure their application for a mail-in ballot is received by officials no later than Oct. 23, but officials recommend you request one as soon as possible.
To vote by mail in Texas, you must be:
- 65 years or older
- out of the county on Election Day and during early voting
- confined in jail
Once a voter does get their ballot, Larkin said the process can slow them down, causing delays. She believes ballots may be sent in late as "a function of the complexity" of the process.
Voters must make sure their ballot is received by election officials no later than 7 p.m. on Nov. 3. if it's not postmarked. If it is postmarked, it must be postmarked by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3 and received no later than 5 p.m. on Nov. 4.
"We recommend taking the return envelope to the post office and having it postmarked by hand," said Robert Heard, who works with the Dallas County Elections Department.
Voters can also drop off their mail-in ballots at a location designated by the county's elections office or department.
Gov. Greg Abbott recently issued a proclamation restricting those drop-off locations to one per county.
The decision is being challenged in court, but in the meantime, you can check with your county to see where you can go to submit your ballot in person if you're nervous it won't get there in time.
2. Make sure the signature on your ballot matches the one on your vote-by-mail application.
Larkin recommends voters take a photo of the signature on their vote-by-mail application. That way, she said, you can later make sure you match it as closely as possible on your carrier envelope.
Rejected signatures are one of the main reasons mail-in ballots have not been counted in the past in Texas, she explained. Data from the 2016 presidential election in Dallas County shows this was the top issue for voters who got their ballots in on time, but were later rejected.
Election officials use the signature as one way to ensure the identity of the voter, so if the writing doesn't match, or someone uses a different version of their name, it could mean their ballot isn't counted.
"We understand that [election officials] take a digital picture of the signature on the application to vote by mail," Larkin said.
It's not so much an issue that the shape of your "a" doesn't match, but that sometimes people sign with a different name, she explained. It's an issue that she said particularly affects members of the Hispanic community who might have longer or hyphenated names.
So, she said, it's important to make sure that your name matches across documents, especially from the application to the ballot itself.
3. Be sure to sign the carrier envelope.
It's all about those signatures, folks. Make sure to take the time to thoroughly read through the instructions on the ballot, follow each step correctly and ensure you've signed the carrier envelope with that matching signature.
Officials with the Secretary of State's office say they most often hear about this issue from counties across the state.
"Voters often forget to sign their carrier envelope before returning their ballot by mail," Stephen Chang, a spokesperson for the office, said. "Voters should take extra time and care to sign their carrier envelope before returning their mail ballot."
Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, echoed that, saying people should make sure to sign the envelope with the same signature they used to register.
A missing signature was one of the most common mistakes that got a voter's ballot rejected during the 2016 presidential race in Dallas County, Heard said.
4. Use a pen.
To make sure your ballot is counted, use a black pen, Chimene said.
Do not use a pencil.
5. Don't mail your ballot in the same envelope as someone else's, but make sure it is put in the envelope
Sometimes people who live at the same address will try to return both of their ballots to the elections office in one envelope. But that's a no-go, Heard said.
"Each individual should follow the statutory method of returning their ballot: place the ballot in a secrecy envelope by itself; then place that secrecy envelope into a return envelope by itself."
Couples often do this, he said, but that means their ballots are rejected.
One other thing to look out for? It may sound a bit silly, but make sure you do actually place that ballot in the envelope before sending it off— Heard said there were multiple voters in Dallas County who made that mistake in 2016.
6. Make sure you have the right amount of postage
Some ballots may need two stamps, not just one, to get to the elections office, Chimene explained.
Check with your local elections officials and post office if you're unsure. You can also add an extra stamp on just to be sure.
For Tarrant County voters that live in the city of Mansfield or the Northwest Independent School District will need to pay $.70 in postage total to return their ballot.
7. Give election officials any and all the information they ask for
Sometimes when a voter receives their ballot, it may ask them to send in more information along with the ballot itself.
If it does, that voter must submit the requested information for their ballot to be counted, Heard said.
That information might be a statement of residence or other kind of identification verification, so be sure to return that along with the ballot.
8. If you don't know, take the time to ask officials before returning the ballot
If you have any questions about your ballot or the process, give yourself time to ask your county officials.
Call them up. Most departments list their phone number on the county or department website.
Visit the Texas Secretary of State's website for a complete list of websites, or take a look at the list below for links to counties across North Texas.
To be clear, most people get their ballots in on time and counted.
But during the 2016 presidential election in Dallas County, more than 9,000 mail-in ballots that were sent out were "deducted" because they were not "timely received" by election officials. A total of 51,759 ballots were mailed out for that election, Heard said.
Officials received 41,722 mail ballots to count for that election, Heard explained, with a total of 770,590 ballots cast. There were 313 that were rejected for different reasons like signature issues or lack of information.
Heard did not say what happened to the other ballots sent out by officials.