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Kentucky election officials rejected 32,349 mail-in ballots during the state’s June 23 primary election, according to an analysis of state data obtained by the Guardian.

Even though the number of rejected ballots is just a small fraction of the more than 1m votes cast in Kentucky’s June primary, they still illuminate a potential problem for November, when the state has a closely-watched US senate race between Amy McGrath and Mitch McConnell.

A significant chunk of the ballots were rejected because of a problem with the inner envelope on the absentee ballot, according to an analysis of the data by Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida. Kentucky requires voters to fill out and sign both an inner envelope – which they put their actual ballot in – and then an outer envelope, which they put the inner envelope in.

“We’re over a quarter of the ballots that are being rejected for some issue that seems to be a major design flaw with this inner envelope,” McDonald said. “We’re already at 9,000 ballots that are being rejected now. We could be looking at close to 20,000 if that US senate race is close, that could be determinative of the election outcome.”

The inner envelope contains a perforated flap that voters have to sign, but 3,932 ballots were rejected because the flap was unattached when it was returned. 3,332 ballots were rejected because the inner envelope was unsealed and another 1,484 ballots went uncounted because they didn’t have a required signature on the inner envelope. In total, 27% of the ballots that were rejected in Kentucky were rejected because of a problem with the inner envelope.

McDonald noted the inner envelope issue could have caused even more ballots to be rejected. Another 11,670 ballots were rejected because of a signature issue, but local election officials did not include whether the signature defect was on the inner or outer envelope.

A handful of other states use inner envelopes to ensure the secrecy of a voter’s ballot, but McDonald said in most other states the voter did not have to do anything with the inner envelope and just had to sign the outer one.

“There is no clear purpose for signing the inner envelope other than to trip up voters and provide an excuse to reject their absentee ballots,” he wrote in his analysis.

The rejections underscore a worry that many voters could have their ballots rejected this fall for technical reasons, even though they are eligible voters. States can disqualify ballots for a number of reasons, including problems with a signature, or if a voter forgets to include information.

Mail-in ballot rejections typically don’t get a lot of attention, but there’s concern that as more people vote by mail for the first time, more people will have their ballots thrown out. Research has shown that first time voters, young people, and minorities are more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected.

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