Vote by mail? Trouble ahead for US elections

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A Maricopa County Recorders Office tabulator counts early mail-in ballots in the Arizona presidential primary election in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, March 16, 2020. Voters are choosing who they want to be their candidate in the November presidential election. [Rick D'Elia/EPA/EFE]

Advocates of a vote-by-mail in the US presidential election have argued that it is the only safe way to conduct elections during the COVID pandemic. Opponents argue that moving to vote-by-mail elections opens the floodgates to fraud. Dick Roche looked at the pros and cons.

Dick Roche is a former Irish Minister for the environment, heritage & local government, the department that is responsible for elections in Ireland.

Somewhere in the middle a smaller number of voices urge caution, warn that switching the voting system in a country where 50 states have their own unique set of election rules is not something that can be done overnight and that attempting to do so entails risks that could undermine voter confidence in the electoral process.

This year’s primary elections have demonstrated how difficult changing electoral systems can be, shown how unexpected challenges can arise, highlighted some extraordinary examples of administrative incompetence and produced a raft of legal cases.

They have also put the spotlight on another issue that has been largely overlooked in the brawl over vote-by-mail – the increase in the level of spoiled or rejected votes that arises when voters switch to in-mass voting.

The process of in-mail voting requires more actions by the voters and election officials: there are more occasions for error and more opportunities for unintentionally disenfranchising voters.

When submitting their ballots voters must include personal identifiers to authenticate their votes.  The voter’s signature, date of birth or witness certification are commonly used. Voters must also ensure that their ballots complete with correct identifiers reach the election administrators by the election deadline.

Election administrators have to register more information on voters, keep records of personal identifiers updated, ensure that ballots are dispatched to voters, set workable deadlines for the return of completed ballots, establish and operate verification procedures to ensure that every ballot paper returned is authentic and limit the opportunity for electoral fraud.

All of this is much more complex than arranging in-person elections. Problems can arise at many different points.

Unsurprisingly, it is generally accepted that absentee voting results in more votes being rejected than in traditional in-person voting.

In the 2016 US Presidential election 33.38 million absentee ballots were submitted by voters: 318,728, just 0.96 % were rejected. In the 2018 midterm elections 31.06 million were cast by mail: 1.4 per cent, over 434,800 votes, were rejected.

To give some context to these figures, Donald Trump carried Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined majority of less than 79,000 votes in 2016.

Reports from the US 2020 primary elections indicate that the level of in-mail voting has increased dramatically, that many election authorities were ill equipped to deal with the increase and that there has been a sharp increase in the numbers of in-mail votes being rejected. All three points are well demonstrated by the New York primaries.

New Yorkers voted on 23 June. While certified results for the 2020 primaries had still to issue media reports in late July indicate that 1.8 million absentee votes were requested across the state. In New York City 778,000 absentee ballots were distributed and over 408,000 were returned.

Dealing with the dramatic rise in absentee ballots caused major difficulties for New York’s election authorities. Four weeks after Election Day, absentee votes were still being tabulated and election results were not certified. The counting of votes in primary election should usually be completed within 15 days” of election day.

Media reports indicate that the rejection rate for absentee ballots in 2020 will be very significantly higher than in the 2016 presidential race when 37,000, or 9.3% of returned absentee ballots, were not counted.  The Washington Post reports that initial tabulations in parts of Manhattan and Queens show a rate of rejection of absentee ballots close to 19% and up to 28% in parts of Brooklyn.

Upward of 100,000 votes are reported as being invalidated in five New York City boroughs because of the lack of postmarks. For a ballot to be accepted the return envelope had to be postmarked 23 June or earlier. Data has yet to emerge as to the number of ballots rejected for other reasons.

The postmark problem arose because the US Postal Service does not typically postmark the postage-paid ballot return envelopes supplied to voters by the New York authorities, an issue that should have resolved before the primaries. It was extraordinary that this issue was not foreseen and dealt with. Unsurprisingly, by mid July a series of lawsuits had been lodged in the New York courts over the elections.

While soaring rejection rates for absentee ballots in New York will not impact in the Biden vs Trump contest, New York is a ‘true blue’ Democrat state, the shambolic primary and soaring ballot rejection rate feeds into a negative narrative about elections being ‘rigged’.

Postmarks caused problems in other states too.  A survey by National Public Radio found that in eight states the proportion of absentee ballots rejected over postmarks exceeded the average national rate for rejecting absentee ballots (0.98%) for all issues in the 2016 presidential election.

California, a state not covered in the NPR survey also saw votes disqualified over postmarks.  In all, over 102,000 of the mail-in ballots submitted were not counted, a rejection rate of over 1.5%.  Over 70,300 failed to meet postmark requirements. A further 27,500 were disqualified for failing to provide a signature or because the signature did not match the one on record. As in the case of New York, the level of rejection of absentee ballots would not be sufficient to tilt the Presidential election result but it could impact on Congressional and state elections.

Wisconsin, a ‘perennial’ swing state, held its primaries on 7April following a series of battles between the Democratic party Governor and the Republican controlled legislature.  Over 1.18 million in-mail votes were cast, just 8.5 times the number of absentee votes submitted in 2016.  The rejection rate also increased dramatically. In April 23,000 absentee votes were rejected, almost 16 times the number discounted in 2016.  The number would have been significantly higher were it not for a successful legal challenge. The number of absentee ballots rejected in Wisconsin’s 2020 exceeded Mr Trump’s victory margin in the state’s 2016 presidential election.

Florida’s 2020 primaries were held on 17 March as concerns were mounting about COVID -19. The state saw a striking increase in the uptake of in-mail voting – 46% of voters cast their vote by mail. In the 2020 primaries, 1.38 million in-mail votes were submitted 18,500, or 1.34%, were not counted. In the 2016 presidential election, 0.82% of Florida’s  absentee ballots were not counted.

Nevada, which held congressional primary elections on 9 June opted to send absentee ballots to the state’s 1.63 million ‘active registered’ voters; a large number were returned as ‘undelivered’. Over 491,650 votes were cast in the election, only 7,866 of which were cast in person. Initially, 12,366 absentee votes were rejected because of signature errors. Almost half of those were ‘cured’ by election officials contacting the voters concerned allowing them to correct the errors. Figures issued by Nevada indicate 10, 799 absentee votes went uncounted, a rejection rate of just 2.2%.  In the 2016 presidential election, 1.6% of the state’s absentee ballots received were not counted.

The primaries in Georgia were also troubled. Initially voting was due in March, this was postponed until May and then pushed back again until 9 June because of the COVID pandemic. In an effort to encourage absentee voting the election authorities sent absentee ballot request forms to Georgia’s 6.9 million “active voters”.  Close on 1.5 million applications were submitted. After a campaign plagued with problems 1.1 million in-mail votes were cast, of which just over 11,000 were reported as rejected; 8,500 for arriving after the deadline. Local media suggest that the official tally understated the actual number of rejected absentee votes.   In the 2016 presidential election, Georgia’s voters returned 213,033 absentee ballots, 13,677 were not counted.

Across the US the general pattern of sharp increases in the use of absentee ballots has been reflected in the primaries.  It seems clear that in the November’s elections in mail voting will be more significant than ever.

Fireworks in November

As the use of absentee ballots grows, their rejection rate and the significance of that rate will also grow.

The political blame game that has played out on the issue during the primaries will become much more intense in November when the White House, the House of Representatives and control of the Senate, State Governor positions, seats in the majority of state legislatures and a host of other positions are up for grabs.

At a minimum, disputes will delay election results. Some contests could take weeks or even months to resolve particularly when disputed results make their way to the courts.

Gallup polling in 2019 found that only 40% of US citizens had confidence in the honesty of elections and 59% did not. Anecdotal accounts in media coverage of the primaries suggest that not only has that not improved but that it has likely fallen further.

The Greek writer Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War wrote “in a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.”

Some losers in the 2020 US elections may simply shrug their shoulders, take in on the chin and consider defeat as a learning experience, others will be less sanguine. There could be trouble ahead: expect fireworks in November.

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