Despite the heavy push by Democrats early on in the process to expand mail-in voting, it now appears the party has quickly pivoted toward nudging voters back to in-person voting on Election Day. The process seems like it should be simple, and several states already did mail-only voting before Coronavirus, but the results haven’t been easily replicated around the country. Some states are trying new things which they’ve never done before, such as opening early voting centers, using drop-boxes for ballots instead of the postal service, and in at least one state, absentee voting by email.
Reports from Maryland indicate a potential trainwreck waiting to happen with a system so wrought for delays, it could be weeks after Election Day before true vote totals are known.
The issue in Maryland is an unprecedented amount of requests for ballots by email. The process seems easy. A local registrar sends the voter a secure link, the voter then downloads the ballot at home. The ballot is then printed on standard printer paper, and mailed back to the registrar just like a regular absentee ballot. The problem with this flow is that standard printer paper cannot be scanned by Maryland’s voting machines. As a result, each vote that comes in after bring printed and filled out at home must be transcribed to a real ballot by a panel of election judges, as the Washington Post explains:
To be counted, each of those ballots must instead be hand-copied by election judges onto a cardstock ballot.
And each week, more requests for those Web-delivered ballots are rolling into election offices around the state, dramatically increasing the pressure on a system built for a far different type of election.
A month ahead of the deadline, more than 111,000 people have requested Web-delivered blank ballots — nearly twice the volume of the previous election. About 924,000 voters have so far asked for ballots to be mailed to them.
The Web-delivered ballots offer front-end expediency for voters, who can follow a link in their email, enter credentials on a website and download a ballot packet to print at home on regular paper.
But on the back end, that plain paper becomes a first draft, and every voter’s choices must be transcribed onto oversize cardstock that can be scanned.
For transparency’s sake, the transcription is done by a pair of judges — one a Republican, the other a Democrat. One judge reads the ballot choices aloud, and the other marks them down on the ballot. Then the judges switch jobs to check each other’s work.
The very idea of a ballot being hand-transcribed by someone else onto another paper after a voter has already cast it is skin-crawling. It is in these scenarios where lawsuits could ensue despite the various levels of checks and balances in the process.
Maryland, while it may not be a crucial swing state as it will assuredly go for Biden, is just one example of how localities are struggling to digest the realities of fear over Covid-19 and an electorate on both sides which are highly motivated to vote.
On the national level, Democrats seem to be looking at situations like Maryland and have begun to draw their voters into the voting booth on November 3 by reassuring everyone that in-person voting can be done as safely as visiting the grocery store:
After months of warnings about the risks posed by in-person voting in a push to expand access to mail-in ballots, Democrats across the country are increasingly focused on communicating to voters that it is safe to cast their ballots in a voting booth.
The shift comes after a national legal campaign has successfully resulted in expanded access to mail-in voting in nearly every state — prompting an unprecedented shift in the way millions of Americans will be able to vote due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But as voting is set to begin in more states in the coming weeks, Democrats have settled on a strategy of emphasizing that all voting options, including in-person early and Election Day voting, are safe amid the pandemic.
Perhaps the most pointed urging for Democrats to physically go to the polls came from former first lady Michelle Obama’s primetime speech during the Democratic National Convention last month.
“We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can,” Obama said, as she urged Democrats to cast their ballots ahead of an election in which she said democracy itself was at stake.
Why the sudden urgency to get Democratic voters to the polls? The answer lies in the results seen by mail-in voting across the country during the primaries. On average, mail-in votes suffer a greater likelihood of being rejected for a variety of reasons.
From a story back in August, NPR reported on some startling numbers of how many ballots were rejected during the 2020 primary season earlier this year:
An extraordinarily high number of ballots — more than 550,000 — have been rejected in this year’s presidential primaries, according to a new analysis by NPR.
That’s far more than the 318,728 ballots rejected in the 2016 general election and has raised alarms about what might happen in November when tens of millions of more voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail, many for the first time.
Election experts said first-time absentee voters are much more likely to make the kinds of mistakes that lead to rejected ballots. Studies also show that voters of color and young voters are more likely than others to have their ballots not count.
Most absentee or mail-in ballots are rejected because required signatures are missing or don’t match the one on record, or because the ballot arrives too late.
Election integrity, like everything else, is only as strong as the weakest link. In the case of mail-in voting, it may not be the postal service or partisan vote fraud that harms the electorate, it may be simple clerical mistakes. In this case, the voter is often the weakest link in the mail-in voting chain. Filling out unfamiliar forms requiring various bits of personal information to make them legal and acceptable, a practice new to many voters used to voting in person, is bound to create more mistakes and rejected ballots than one might imagine.
None of this is to suggest or say that mail-in voting is insecure or unsafe, more so that it takes a different type of effort than visiting the voting booth. It’s often said that in-person voting on a single day during certain hours places an undue burden on certain portions of the voting public, such as elderly, poor, or homeless, for example, because they can sometimes have a difficult time physically getting to a polling place.
Mail-in voting, on the other hand, removes the physical barrier, such as travel, but replaces it with other barries such as paperwork and time. There are trade-offs in both scenarios, and every voting method is created to offer more access to voters, but no method comes without inherent shortcomings.
Axios recently put out an article making wide circulation which listed several of the mail-in voting hurdles around the country already seen in 2020:
A fresh Pennsylvania state Supreme Court ruling could impact tens of thousands of ballots in that swing state.
In Florida, voters are twice as likely to have their absentee ballot rejected if they’ve never voted that way before, University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith told Axios.
In North Carolina, “Black voters’ ballots are being rejected at more than four times the rate of white voters,” per FiveThirtyEight. Overall, data shows new, younger, Black and Hispanic voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected.
More than 550k mail-in ballots were rejected during the presidential primaries this year, per an NPR analysis.
In an election that could be decided by a single state and a handful of votes, seeing numbers of potential rejected primary votes in the hundreds of thousands is eye-popping. Undoubtedly some of the kinks may have been worked out in the months since primary voting in the Spring, but many of the same challenges will always remain.
It is in this backdrop that both parties are now encouraging voters to be unafraid of showing up in-person on Election Day to cast a ballot. However, with Democratic voters far more likely to attempt mail-in voting than Republican voters, the issue is very near and dear to the Biden campaign:
A recent CNN poll found that 49% of Biden voters said they planned to vote by mail, compared to 10% of Trump voters. A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll conducted by Ipsos found a similar result: a strong partisan tilt in how voters planned to cast their ballots.
If a large amount of Biden voters decide to vote by mail, and some of their ballots are rejected for whatever reason, that could cut thousands of votes off the total once all votes are counted after Election Day.
In a way, it would be best if one candidate wins decisively on November 3 with overwhelming numbers leaving no room for a few hundred thousand rejected votes to matter. That looks to be unlikely, with thin margins in swing states like Florida and Arizona. The vote counting will likely go down to the wire in some areas like it did in 2016.
In short, we are headed for some uncharted post-election litigation and maneuvering by both campaigns and the final decision could win up in the courts as it did in 2000. What this all means is, enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner political discussions because you still might not have election results as you pass the turkey.