MinnPost explored voting by mail, and mentioned Washington state’s system, in a March 27 article, “Yes, Minnesota could move to vote-by-mail for the 2020 election. No, it won’t be easy.” According to the Seattle Times, Washington state election officials threw out more than 47,000 votes in this spring’s all Vote-By-Mail (VBM) primary election cycle. These votes were not counted because not all voters remembered or cared to choose a political party on the front of their ballot. This problem does not arise in poll-based voting systems because the poll worker asks all voters which party-based ballot they prefer when they sign the poll book at the front entrance of the polling place.
The New York Times recently published an editorial advocating a nationwide switch to voting by mail. This would be a mistake. VBM routinely disenfranchises tens of thousands of voters who vote legally but then have their ballot disqualified through no fault of their own. This happens when arbitrary rules determine that a voter’s signature does not match the signature on file, or when their ballots are lost or delayed in the mail.
Voice of experience
My own experience with VBM here in Washington state includes having my ballot rejected and not counted — an experience shared by a growing number of my friends. When this happens, the county auditor mails a letter of explanation to each individual voter after disqualifying a ballot. Often voters have done everything correctly, but still receive a letter stating that their votes did not count. Additionally, there is frequent confusion about which ballot to cast. During every election, voters mail in ballots from previous elections, not realizing they are casting the wrong ballot. This is not an insignificant number of votes, and again not something that happens in poll-based voting systems.
These problems routinely occur in every election in states with all Vote-By-Mail systems, and tens of thousands of votes are discarded regularly, county by county. I have documented these problems for more than a decade after my late friend Andy Stephenson, a nationally known voting activist, cast his final ballot from his deathbed, only to have it rejected because his signature did not appear to match the one on file at the county.
Too vulnerable to malfeasance
Claims that the VBM systems work in Washington, or California, or Colorado are based only on the fact that no one looks for the problems that exist. These systems are altogether too vulnerable to malfeasance: Consider how last year’s election in North Carolina resulted in a “do-over” because just one person attempted to rig the election using absentee ballots.
Furthermore, absentee ballots are fundamentally not secret ballots. Individuals can sign and sell their absentee ballot for a buck or a cigarette. One spouse can coerce the other to sign the ballot and hand it over to them to vote fraudulently. This is the reason the absentee ballot system was originally very strictly limited, while secret ballots in polling places occurred throughout most of the country. A limited absentee system allows the voter who actually needs to vote remotely to appear before an election official and request an absentee ballot in person, reducing potential for abuse.
For those who believe mailed ballots would be better than votes tallied by computer, think again. Ballots received by mail are simply fed into computerized counting machines after they traverse the complexities of the U.S. Postal Service.
Moving to all-mail voting would be nothing short of a catastrophe for our democracy. Just consider how long it takes to count a vote by mail election. When I ran for city council in Bremerton, Washington, in 2009 there were roughly 7,000 votes cast, and that election alone took weeks to decide. This is what an all-mail voting system will do to the country, expanded to an exponentially larger scale. It will make all elections less accurate, less precise, and require far longer to tabulate. Elections that formerly took place at the school or down the street were counted in one night, but when ballots trickle in through the mail, the process takes a month or more to decide. Even the proverbial election for the county dogcatcher would not yield a result for weeks.
A better way: early voting centers
The more prudent route to greater voting access is to create and maintain early voting centers, open for a week in every county, in every state. Such centers could accommodate the needs of shift workers or those who might need to cast their ballots at night or on a different day. If the Covid-19 pandemic continues to limit social gathering until November, or returns in the fall, voting booths can be separated by the required 6 or more feet, and with the opportunity for all voters to vote for an entire week; this strategy would greatly reduce crowding. Establishing early voting centers is something municipalities could actually accomplish by this November. They also provide help for the disabled to vote in private, while preserving the secret ballot for all. States that currently vote by mail already vote up to a month early. So the establishment of early voting centers would not be a prohibitively disruptive system.
In conclusion, all 50 states would benefit from early-voting centers: shorter lines, ballots tabulated daily, and final tallies by the end of the week. However, the majority of states are woefully unprepared for a sudden transition to voting only by mail. A far better option would be the creation of early voting centers, open during the week of the election.
Gentry Lange is the director of The No Vote By Mail Project in Seattle.
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