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Can Vote-By-Mail Fix Those Long Lines At The Polls?

A big potential drawback to the convenience of absentee and mail voting: Studies show that ballots are rejected at a higher rate than for voters who brave the wait at polling places.

A Miami-Dade election official feeds ballots into a vote gathering machine. A big potential drawback to the convenience of absentee and mail voting: Studies show that ballots are rejected at a higher rate than for voters who brave the wait at polling places. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In his State of the Union address, President Obama returned to a point he’d made on election night: The need to do something about long voting lines. Obama announced his plan for a commission to “improve the voting experience in America.”

But often missing from discussions about how to make voting easier is the rapid expansion of absentee balloting. Letting people vote from home means fewer people queuing up at overburdened polling places. So why hasn’t vote-by-mail been heralded as the solution?

When it comes to absentee and mail-in voting, researchers and voting rights advocates aren’t sure the convenience is worth the potential for hundreds of thousands of rejected ballots.

Although Oregon and Washington are the only two states to conduct elections entirely by mail, absentee voting has expanded rapidly nationwide. Since 1980, the number of voters using absentee ballots has more than tripled. Roughly one in five votes is now absentee.

Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow voters to request an absentee ballot for any reason, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s up from the six states that did so in 1988, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Rare cases of voting fraud are more likely to be through absentee ballots, The New York Times reported last fall, citing comment from some election officials. Compared to in-person voting, an absentee ballot also is more likely to be rejected.

Yet few legislators proposed restrictions on absentee and mail-in voting to prevent fraud during the wave of voter ID laws introduced in the last election. Some point to partisan politics, as Republican voters traditionally have been more likely to vote absentee while Democrats tend to turn out early to vote in-person.

Proponents of mail and absentee voting say it can encourage higher voter turnout. Last November, Oregon had the sixth-highest voter turnout of eligible voters in the country, though the five states with higher turnout had a mix of mail and in-person voting. Mail-only elections also require fewer staff and resources, said professor Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

The effect of absentee voting on wait times is unclear. Nationwide, line lengths have stayed fairly steady over the last 10 years.

In Florida, more than 28 percent of the nearly 8.5 million ballots cast in the last election were from absentee voters, up nearly 6 percentage points from 2008. In anticipation of discouragingly long lines, the Obama team ran a “Vote Now!” campaign endorsing early and absentee voting. Yet many Florida voters still reported standing in line for hours.

The long wait times were likely the result of cutbacks in early voting days and an unusually lengthy ballot, said Dartmouth professor Michael C. Herron, who with another researcher studied the effect of early voting restrictions in Florida last year.

Herron found that the rise of absentee voting in Florida was the result of long lines and expressed concern about the high number of rejected absentee ballots. Overall, nearly 23,000 of Florida’s absentee votes were thrown out in the last election.

“If the solution is to shunt people into a process that has a 1 percent rejection rate, that could be a lot of people,” he said.

Like long lines, ballot rejection can disproportionately affect voters of color. In Florida, African-American voters who voted absentee were nearly twice as likely to have their ballot rejected as white absentee voters, Herron found. Vote-by-mail can also make it more difficult for low-income voters, who are more likely to move, to stay on top of registration requirements, Gronke said.

Gronke said he believes states that conduct all elections via mail are able to do a better job making sure votes get counted. Voters in Oregon have also been voting by mail ballot since 1998 and have a better handle on the system, he said.

Voting rights activists aren’t trumpeting mail-in voting as the best answer. Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters, said increasing absentee voting is not a priority. Instead, the League has focused on expanding online registration and securing more days of in-person early voting, she said.

“Is that a true 21st century solution to modernizing our election process, given the fact that fewer and fewer people are using the mail?” MacNamara said. Of vote-by-mail, she said, “I’m not sure this is going to be a long-term solution.”

There should be a nation-wide law which requires the option of mail-in ballots, but those states who have legislators in power who want to depress the vote or rig the system certainly won’t agree to that. In my state of Washington we have mail-in ballots, everyone here uses them, and the system works! They also provide paper evidence, thus lessening the possibility of election fraud. The ability to hold our actual ballots, view our choices, and do the research on each item before selecting, sealing, stamping, and mailing is also a comfortable process.

I suspect eventually we’ll be able to cast our votes online, by-passing the post office and eliminating the need for stamps (which many of us never use anymore) - but (obviously) measures must be made to prevent possible fraud in implementing that process.

james davisson

Feb. 19, 2013, 6:47 p.m.

Gosh, there’s a huge drawback to vote-by-mail. You can’t disenfranchise the voters you don’t want voting. That’s not going to work!

I have historically used absentee voting. This has solved obstacles for me. I am handicap adult and getting to the polls is not an option that can be resolved with out hardship on myself and an aid.

Voting by absentee need only require officials to follow strict guidelines (no guidelines mentioned in this article).

People must be responsible and I seem to recall there was a lot of folks who waited until the last possible time to cast a ballot.

Databases of dead people, felons, E-verify, DMV’s from all the States (I am sure more databases to be included) for proper verification. This would not be an insurmountable problem it requires the will by government. I seem to recall the federal gov’t refusing some State’s request for data. This was probabley due to two reasons 1) The Obama folks did not want to stop illegal voting or 2) Their databases were not maintained, I suspect the problem was both.

No, extending the voting window is not the answer.

Victoria Collier

Feb. 19, 2013, 7:07 p.m.

Anyone promoting vote-by-mail, Internet voting, or any other system that does not offer a secure chain of custody, needs to do their homework.

Chain of custody means that the ballots are secured from fraud and tampering from the moment they’re cast to the moment they are counted. None of these systems offer secure chain of custody, and for that reason are open to fraud and manipulation at many stages.

Mail-in voting is convenient, while entirely undermining the basis of democratic elections, and giving voters a false sense of security because fraud will be undetectable.

No one who casts a vote by mail has any idea where their ballot goes after they cast it.

Internet voting—which offers no security, NO physical ballot, and myriad opportunities for hacking, insider fraud, and error — is without question the worst and most undemocratic voting system imaginable, and it will continue to be successfully opposed by election integrity activists who actually understand the requirements of democracy: the ability of citizens to oversee and authenticate elections.

People may support these systems with the best of intention, thinking they will enfranchise more voters, but again, they MUST do their homework.

http://novbm.wordpress.com/

I have lived and voted in 6 different states, for the last 15 years, in Oregon. The vote by mail has always been great. Besides using our great USPS, you can return ballots for free in many conveniently located collection boxes. You can take your time (I used to feel rushed when filling out long ballots knowing there were lots of people waiting in line) and even use your voter’s guide or check out literature online while flling out your ballot at your convenience and take as long as you would like!

@pgillenw

A voter registration is the only “proper” verification that is needed, at least here in Oregon. The voter signs an outside security envelope and the sig is compared to those on file. The actual ballot is in another, non-identified envelope that is later opened to access and scan the ballot.

I found your assumption of voting fraud to be out of line and insulting. Conservatives have been on this snipe hunt for over a decade and came up with but a handful of cases. A man’s oath when signing the registration card has been sufficient proof for most of our history. There shouldn’t be any voter suppression gimmicks added to our systems to discourage voting.

Robert Getsla

Feb. 19, 2013, 9:58 p.m.

There are a number of possible problems with voting by mail, not the least of which is there are more opportunities for something to happen to your ballot before it is counted, if it is counted at all. 

I would prefer to hand my paper ballot to some real people who will then hand count it on the spot after the polls close.  There are many people in the world who vote today on hand counted paper ballots, including the Canadians. 

My concern is the “Black Box” effect that exists between my marking my ballot and the election results.  We have already seen many instances of ballots being wrongly counted by machines, or never counted at all because they were rejected for some obscure reason. There has been a well documented “Red Shift” of several percentage points between exit polls and the “official” election results.  Note this “Red Shift” has ALWAYS been in the direction favoring Republicans.  That is why I am very suspicious of what might happen to my ballot when it is out of sight and/or machine counted. 

Actual instances of “Voter fraud” turn out to be quite rare despite Republican noise to the contrary.  But Election Fraud is far more common, and if there are any “programmable” machines are in the system, very difficult to impossible to detect.  For more information see Brad Friedman’s BradBlog website, http://www.bradblog.com/, and Bev Harrris’s Black Box Voting website, http://www.blackboxvoting.org/ .

Dave Muckley, Many people have studied voter fraud issues and depends on whose study one is willing to buy. I kinda fall in the space where fraud exist in society in many, many areas then voter fraud surely happens. The stakes are to high for the two party’s.

Now where I think a big problem occurs is gerrymandering. That is enjoyed by both party’s.

I am leaning more towards repealing the 17th Amendment—and bringing back to State legislators choosing at least Senators that best reflect the states values. This just might take gerrymandering out of the picture. Again just starting to ponder the issue.

I discovered the hard way that our mail doesn’t always get through to their destination.

I had my phone shut off even though I did mail in my payment before it was due, and it was a nightmare getting it back on.

For almost a month I had no phone, no computer and my cell phone did not work in my area so I had to take trips to other locations trying to find out if my check finally got through, and then trying to make a payment over the phone costing me four dollars extra.

I did go to the post office but they merely told me that chances were that my bill got shredded in their sorting machinery. Do we really want to risk our votes depending on the P.O. sorting machines?

Robert Getsla

Feb. 20, 2013, 1:12 a.m.

There are a number of possible problems with voting by mail, not the least of which is there are more opportunities for something to happen to your ballot before it is counted, if it is counted at all. 

I would prefer to hand my paper ballot to some real people who will then hand count it on the spot after the polls close.  There are many people in the world who vote today on hand counted paper ballots, including the Canadians. 

My concern is the “Black Box” effect that exists between my marking my ballot and the election results.  We have already seen many instances of ballots being wrongly counted by machines, or never counted at all because they were rejected for some obscure reason. There has been a well documented “Red Shift” of several percentage points between exit polls and the “official” election results.  Note this “Red Shift” has ALWAYS been in the direction favoring Republicans.  That is why I am very suspicious of what might happen to my ballot when it is out of sight and/or machine counted. 

Actual instances of “Voter fraud” turn out to be quite rare despite Republican noise to the contrary.  But Election Fraud is far more common, and if there are any “programmable” machines in the system, such fraud will be very difficult to impossible to detect.  For more information see Brad Friedman’s BradBlog website, http://www.bradblog.com/, and Bev Harrris’s Black Box Voting website, http://www.blackboxvoting.org/ .

I’m curious how someone would be able to identify a voter’s race from an absentee ballot.

Victoria, that’s a great start, but only scratches the surface of the problem.

Here’s what I see going wrong, beginning to end:

- You can’t guarantee getting the ballots to people with outdated addresses, the homeless, people hiding from abusive spouses/parents/landlords, or people who move frequently for any reason.

- You can’t guarantee that the voter is the voter.  It’s easy to imagine a kid, landlord, or housekeeper filling out a ballot for everyone in the house.

- You can’t guarantee that the voter will fill in the form correctly.  How many of us actually even own pencils, let alone use them?  And if it’s done in ink, is your ink waterproof?  Mine isn’t, and it does occasionally rain in November.  This past year, parts of the New York area were almost entirely still underwater on Election Day!

- There’s no guarantee of personal secrecy.  I lived in a house where, if I had a politically-inclined family, I guarantee my father would have insisted I fill out the ballot in front of him, to make sure it was “right.”

- Once it’s in the mailbox, where does it go?  The Post Office doesn’t (can’t) guarantee delivery on schedule, an envelope is impossible to track once it’s outside of the normal path, and not delivering envelopes on Saturdays (coming soon) increases the pressure.  And as Judy points out, you’ll never know if your ballot was eaten, made unreadable, or completely destroyed.

- There’s absolutely no way of verifying that your vote was counted, once it’s received, not even the vague satisfaction of a clunking lever or a confirmation message.

- There ARE, however, many easy ways to track backwards to figure out the identity of every voter unless we all become paranoid filling them out.

- On top of that, multiple people are touching the ballot along the way, leading to all sorts of potential interference.

It’ll certainly shrink the lines, but as Robert points out, since the ballot isn’t in your hands up to the point of submission, any fraud you can imagine is basically trivial.

These issues are significant with absentee ballots, as well, of course, but let’s be honest, absentee ballots are only rarely significant, themselves.

A good system allows you to trace your vote from the ballot to the final total, without letting anybody else follow that route except with your help.  Any system that doesn’t have that as the primary goal is worse than what we have.  It opens the door to enormous voter and election fraud on a wide scale.

Our votes constitute the bottom line of our democracy. It is essential that all citizens be able to vote AND that their votes be properly counted. A critical point is that there are enormous incentives to falsify election outcomes. So a top priority must be to conduct elections so as allow all citizens to vote, and to ensure that their votes are properly tabulated.

Early voting, voting by mail, and e-voting systems all make wholesale election fraud much easier. The big problem with early voting and voting by mail is that of maintaining a proper chain of custody. That is, to ensure that nobody has a chance to inject bogus ballots into the system, or to intercept and alter or destroy ballots somewhere in the path between voters and the counting process. Such interception can take place at many points. Prevention requires a level of security that is simply not attainable on the scale required for elections involving large numbers of voters.

For example, a few years ago my wife observed, when turning in an early ballot, that such ballots were left in an open box on a desk in the receiving office. Every clerk in that office, or even visitors, had easy access to the ballots over a period of many days and nights. Our local governments are not set up to provided the kinds of security necessary to protect the integrity of elections conducted in this manner.

E-voting systems represent a more dramatic threat. The possibilities for the wholesale manipulation of election data processed by these machines, in ways that are essentially undetectable, are bounded only by the ingenuity of the cheaters. Note, for example, the endless war between security people and spammers.

Surprisingly, in this high-tech world, the safest, most convenient, and cheapest way to carry out elections is via the old fashioned hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballot, cast and counted on election day in a polling place monitored by representatives of competing political organizations.

Those concerned with making our elections fair, including protection of the rights of all citizens, should insist on elections being held this way, while also fighting to ensure that adequate polling places are established in every neighborhood. They should also organize to assist less educated people to register to vote, to acquire proper identification cards, and, if necessary to get help them get to the polls on election day. Making election day a national holiday would also help get out the vote.

For more discussion of voting systems, see
http://www1.cs.columbia.edu/~unger/articles/manualCount.html

Usual suspects

Feb. 20, 2013, 2:21 p.m.

The fact that we have to be discussing this is the depth of our voting problems/crisis.
We can go to the moon but in 2013 we still aren’t sure if our votes are counted or if we will be allowed to vote in and atmosphere conducive to getting out the most voters in a democratic way.
I have been voting since 1968 and there has not been one election where there weren’t issues and problems and uncertainty over the validity of the elections. This is not a coincidence it is endemic in our history of elections. The reasons are clear. Organizations and people try to influence the election results, who votes and who doesn’t. Which votes are counted and those not. Those encouraged to vote and those discouraged.
This is not that complicated to straighten out, but there is no will to do anything about it from one election cycle to the next. And nothing is going to be done about it now.
I have seen these comments for over 40 years of my voting life, heart felt and righteous. All with no effect.
Now with the advent of computer voting and counts, and the proprietary software governing our elections for the most part. I’m pretty sure all the foxes are in the hen house determining the selection of representation at most levels of governance.
Maybe, just maybe it’s the reason we sense a lack of representation while the interests of the few reign supreme.
I’m sorry. But at this point, if I can’t see a raise of hands in my presence I simply don’t trust the outcome of any majority vote in 2013 and beyond. I don’t know how to fix it and those who do won’t.

Voter issues in State of Florida were the result of intentional screw-ups pre-arranged courtesy of the Guv.  The end result of all the sly obstacles was to take Florida out of the circle of influence.  The election was declared for President Obama while we managed to stumble around for another couple of days.  And then the State declared for Democrats anyway!  A sterling example of why there needs to be a national non-partisan election commission in the US but sure not counting on anything soon!

E-voting definitely will solve the issue.
Digitally casting vote using a social media like Facebook have the solution and if we start working on implementation of the idea now in 2016, we’ll become able to set a global model of New generation voting system -free of dishonest election-time manipulation of super wealthy thugs.

Shahisiam.
I wish I had your confidence. Seems to me anything on the computer going over the internet is suspect. How does anyone know their vote is represented? Who would watch over the connections and make sure the tally isn’t corrupted, because you just have to know and expect someone would be trying to hack the system.
I don’t know what the answer is. Who could you trust? Who wouldn’t be influenced by $$$?
I think going back to a paper ballot only and changing the election laws to allow for weekend voting, or a week of voting to make it more open. I don’t care if it takes a week to learn who won. Seems the efforts now are to make it as fast as possible an I don’t think that is in the countries best interests.
We also need tampering laws with TEETH! Long prison terms, felonies. Hard time for people caught messing with the system.
Independent, honest poles.
Hand counting.

Steve, despite my list of problems, I can imagine the core of a system that would make anything work, but I doubt anybody would implement.

If you receive a unique and unpredictable receipt number for your ballot—such as an SHA1 hash of the voting site/machine/process’s ID, the time of day, and some arbitrary phrase chosen by the voter that doesn’t need to be remembered—which is unattached to you (someone would need to audit that) but is associated with the information on your ballot, you could post every vote-identifier pair to a public website.

Then, anybody could validate that his vote was counted properly, and everybody can verify the tallies, but nobody except the voter knows his vote.

The technical problem is in assigning that value (for each election, obviously) in such a way that nobody but the voter can ever know what it is.  However, I suspect solving that problem would allow for nearly any ballot-casting technology to be used without too much trouble, and should eliminate election fraud.

I agree, though, that without something like this, any high-speed system is more worthless than it already is.

I am Oregon resident. I cannot be ore enthusiastic about our vote-by-mail system. However, when voted for it I did not know it was going to close vote- at-the-polls. there have been times when a vote has been cast Too early before revelations about this candidate or that Measure came to light.
We have also had a number of political activists suggest that vote-by-mail would be easy to corrupt, and would not sync with their suggested Photo-ID voter requirement.
For many of us, going to the polls with our fellow citizens is an emotionally satisfying event.  As other states craft legislation to have vote by mail, consider keeping the polls as an option, even if all you do is drop off your completed ballot.

Richard_Atwater

Feb. 24, 2013, 7:57 p.m.

I have voted in Oregon for 38 years, before vote-by-mail and after.  In Oregon, you have the perfect right to drop off your completed ballot at most libraries, and in Portland you can drive by the elections office on election day and hand it to the elections people on the street collecting ballots out front.  The envelope (pre-printed with your voter information) has to be signed by you, and the signature is verified from one on file. 

Can the system be cheated?  Probably, but no more than any other.  I research each issue at home as I’m filling out my ballot and I can take as long as I need, no surprises, no pressure.

@pgillenw

You lost me. It is state legislatures that create gerrymandering in the first place. How on earth would giving them the responsibility for selecting senators not be affected by gerrymandering? Also, I cannot fathom how statewide elections for US Senators can BE affected by gerrymandering. That seems to be immune to engineered districts by bypassing them entirely.

On voting fraud, actual studies have shown that, yes, it exists, but in minuscule percentages. the problem from where I sit is with voter suppression, something that we saw a great deal of last November. As we speak, Republican led legislatures are monkeying around with the Electoral College. This, going back to the first paragraph, is the gerrymandering of the presidential vote.

As to repealing the 17th Amendment? I guess everybody’s gotta have a dream.

I see no reason if local DMV’s along with green carding, Visa’s awarding, prison releases, SS and the like if job done right that registration to vote could not be done properly the problem lies with various gov’t agency’s circumventing the system. Let’s face it they, the government Dems and Reb’s,don’t want to fix the problem.

It isn’t voter fraud that’s is the issue. It’s election fraud, those who count the votes and organize the precincts.
People need to make the distinction because when the issue comes up as it always does after and election the confusion starts again and it is orchestrated every time to confuse people and turn the issue toward voter fraud, which is a red herring and is used to divide people again.
The focus should be on ELECTION FRAUD and all the crap that surrounds it, like not enough machines in areas where they don’t want people voting. Or broken machines every year in places with minority populations. Or republican or democrat strong holds. Intimidation and phone calling to confuse people prior to elections which should be easily traced back to the culprits but never is.
The whole business, of election voting places has got to change, so no democrat or republican or any other party can man the machines. Because they will always try to rig the vote in the end. 
People who work in the voting precincts should under severe penalty of law have to straighten up and fly right or go to prison for a very long time if caught rigging the system. All computer software should be investigated for hacking potentials and no proprietary restrictions allowed. Personally I would consider it a capital crime to throw and election when you consider the ramifications of thwarting the will of the people and what that can mean considering the military force and weaponry at hand going into the administration of people who steal elections, such as the Bush election in 2000 in the state of Florida.
Clearly election fraud at multiple levels of federal and state offices giving the nation a maniac Presidency and all that has come from that, to this very day.
The people who count the votes determine the winners, it’s that simple.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues in the 2012 election you won't read about elsewhere.

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