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Voting by Mail Would Reduce Coronavirus Transmission but It Has Other Risks

As COVID-19 spreads, many are proposing to hold the November election by mail. Without careful preparation, though, the transition could run into logistical problems and provide opportunities for voter fraud.

Election worker Ruth Ard opens vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary on March 10 in Renton, Washington. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty)

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Because of a rise in its Latino population, Gwinnett County in suburban Atlanta had to mail out absentee ballots with information in both English and Spanish in 2018. The result was chaos. The county accommodated the increased text by printing it in 6.5-point font, making each letter smaller than a sesame seed. Many voters were confused by the instructions — in particular, that they had to sign the back of the yellow envelope before returning it or their votes wouldn’t count. Gwinnett rejected 595 absentee ballots, a third of all those tossed in Georgia, often without notifying the spurned voters. Only a hurried lawsuit by the ACLU forced the county to reexamine the discarded ballots.

The debacle caused in Gwinnett by this relatively minor tweak presents a cautionary lesson for election administrators amid a pandemic-driven flurry of calls for a massive expansion of voting by mail. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced legislation this month to promote and help fund mail-in ballot efforts, and several states that have delayed primaries are mulling whether to conduct them by mail.

“In light of the threats that this virus poses, every American should be able to cast a ballot by mail without excuse,” Klobuchar and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., wrote Friday, urging Congress to include funding for elections in emergency packages. “That means states will have to scale their vote-by-mail processes in a way that hasn’t been done before.”

While mail-in ballots seem like an elegant solution as the United States grapples with containing COVID-19, experts say slow-moving state and county governments, inconsistent state rules and limited resources to buy essentials such as envelopes and scanners could make it difficult to ramp up nationally to reach more than 200 million registered voters in the November general election. Among the possible downsides of a quick transition are increased voter fraud, logistical snafus and reduced turnout among voters who move frequently or lack a mailing address.

There is bipartisan consensus that mail-in ballots are the form of voting most vulnerable to fraud. A 2005 commission led by President Jimmy Carter and James A. Baker III — George W. Bush’s secretary of state — concluded that these ballots “remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.” Ballot harvesting scandals, in which political operatives tamper with absentee ballots that voters have entrusted to them, have marred recent elections in North Carolina and Texas.

Mail-in technology is also far more complex than a poll worker stuffing ballots into envelopes and opening them on return. In some cities with diverse populations, hundreds of types of ballots in multiple languages must be designed and directed to the appropriate voters in the correct precincts. Envelopes must be thick enough to protect voter privacy, and the paper thickness must be appropriate for scanners used to count ballots. When ballots are received, machines often open the envelopes and sort and tabulate the votes. These machines are expensive, and they generally take several months to order.

Jurisdictions like the states of Washington and Utah took several years to make a smooth transition from polling places to voting by mail. Quick turnarounds after rule changes — as in Gwinnett County — have generally led to more problems.

“You can’t just wave a magic wand and have this happen,” said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who studies voting. “If we want to do this for the November elections, we need to start making preparations now.”

States with upcoming Democratic primaries have even less time to adjust. Jordan Fuchs, deputy secretary of state for Georgia, which recently postponed its primary from March 24 to May 19, said that in the early days of the pandemic local officials were eager to adopt mail-in ballots. Then, she said, they realized all of the hurdles. “There is a lot more to this than instantly mailing people a ballot,” said Fuchs, who previously worked in direct mail campaigns.

Fuchs said that the state will likely mail absentee ballot applications to all voters over the age of 65 and give younger people the option of applying for a mail-in ballot. “Our goal is to make people aware of their options and empower them as to their choices,” she said.

Washington, where every voter has an opportunity to cast a ballot by mail, took about six years to ramp up its process. “We don’t have six years,” Fuchs said. “Quickly trying to set up a program like this is very costly and there are growing pains associated with this.”

While about a quarter of Americans vote by mail today, the idea of mailing ballots was initially resisted in the United States, emerging only as it became necessary for soldiers to vote from the battlefield. It progressed as states began to allow people who were seriously ill or away from their homes on Election Day to mail ballots. It wasn’t until the 1980s that California became the first state to allow citizens to request absentee ballots for any reason. In 1998, Oregon voters passed an initiative making it the first state to send ballots to all registered voters by mail. Washington, Colorado, Hawaii and Utah followed. In-person voting locations are generally available in these states, along with drop-off boxes for voters to turn in ballots themselves. These states also have same-day or automatic voter registration, which fosters turnout in general and can also enable transients who have not registered or received a ballot by mail to vote.

Experts say that, given enough preparation time, all votes could be safely cast by mail not only in Washington, Colorado, Hawaii and Utah but also in about 25 other states where voters can already request an absentee ballot for each election for any reason. Especially primed are five of these states — Arizona, California, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey — where voters can join a “permanent absentee” list. But in 18 states where voting by mail is rare and only allowed under limited circumstances, election administrators have a hard road ahead.

“To move from a couple of thousand to a couple of million requires an entirely different infrastructure,” said Tammy Patrick, a former county election official who is now a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund in Washington, D.C. “It’s going to be a different logistical lift for them to even ramp up the printing of the ballots, let alone ordering a million envelopes that are the right size and compatible with” the U.S. Postal Service’s method of sorting mail automatically.

Some states use paperless voting machines or touch-screen devices that mark ballots for voters and print them out. These states, Patrick says, likely have no agreement with vendors to print ballots and would have to start entirely from scratch.

In Kentucky, where most counties use paperless systems and ballot marking devices, only 2% of voters mailed in ballots in 2018, according to data collected by the Election Assistance Commission. Few counties have scanners to tabulate paper ballots.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams is wary of the state’s ability to switch to voting by mail. “It’s not something to be done at the drop of a hat,” he said, adding that the move could cost millions of dollars and still be flawed. “This is a very expensive approach and it’s also risky. But it might be the best of a lot of bad options.”

Kentucky has delayed its primaries from May 19 to June 23, allowing more time for planning. “Either we’ll have a normal election because the worst will have passed or we’ll come back with recommendations,” he said.

Amber McReynolds is the CEO of Vote at Home, which helps policymakers and election officials improve their vote by mail processes and policies. “The unprecedented public health crisis” calls for localities to “be extraoirdinarily creative with our solutions,” she said.

Yet there are states, like Texas, where McReynolds thinks it may be very difficult to implement a robust and universal vote by mail system. Texas’ election administration is almost entirely controlled by counties, which each set their own voting processes. Rural counties frequently use machines that produce no paper backup and have no infrastructure to store it, while larger counties have more sophisticated systems that keep a printed record of ballots. The state has little authority to change local election administration decisions.

“I don’t think I can say, ‘Yes, by the general election this can be in place everywhere,’" she said. While it’s possible to send a ballot to every voter in the state, that “does not mean it can be processed correctly on the back end.”

McReynolds has called for centralizing the printing, mailing and collecting of ballots at the state level, though without legislative action this would not be possible in Texas. Centralization, with appropriate technology to open, sort and scan ballots, would mean fewer people counting votes and less need to recruit thousands of volunteers. In the Michigan primary this month, “15,000 people were touching absentee ballots across the state,” she said. “The only way to scale it reasonably in states is to centralize more of the work.”

But it’s unclear if the supply chain can accommodate such a massive shift. One of the country’s largest ballot printing companies, Runbeck Election Services, is preparing to boost supplies and hire additional staff to meet what it anticipates will be significantly increased demand, its president, Jeff Ellington, said. But it’s still waiting for final word on the availability of machines that Runbeck uses to print the ballots and stuff them into envelopes.

Ellington warned that hastily implementing vote by mail could lead to thousands of voters getting the wrong ballot. “A large county may have 2,000 different ballot styles. A voter who lives across the street from another might get an entirely different ballot than their neighbor,” he said.

The sheer amount of paper is also difficult for counties and states to manage. Ellington said that one semi-trailer truck holds approximately 250,000 ballots. By that ratio, Maricopa County in Arizona, with more than 2 million registered voters, would require about nine truckloads of ballots. The logistics can be overwhelming for states unaccustomed to sending out ballots by mail, Ellington said.

“These things are doable, but the decisions have to be made,” he said. “Right now, we are in a holding pattern of ‘Are we gonna do it? Aren’t we gonna do it? Who’s gonna pay for it and how much is it gonna cost?’ and that waiting will be the killer of it.”

Concerns about tabulating mail-in votes are amplified in states where laws prevent local election workers from counting ballots until the day of the election, as in Wisconsin. “We can’t open ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day and they can only be processed while the polls are open,” said Rachel Rodriguez, elections management specialist for Dane County, home of Madison. “Simply processing them is going to be a huge challenge.”

Most municipalities in the state don’t own the high-speed scanners necessary to process all of the ballots, she said. “I see videos of these other counties that have automatic processes and I just marvel, because it’s all done by hand here,” she said.

Rodriguez said requests for absentee ballots have already skyrocketed, with more than 15,000 applications awaiting approval. Workers must open each emailed request, verify the voter’s identity and then manually enter the information before any absentee ballot can be generated. To keep up with demand, the city of Madison has borrowed workers from county offices that are closed because of the pandemic.

“It’s a serious struggle,” she said, adding that there have been supply shortages for paper and envelopes across the state. “All of the normal suppliers we have are completely out of stock.”

Mailed ballots may also be difficult for some communities to send and receive. On Native American reservations and in remote Alaskan villages, for example, many residents do not have traditional mailing addresses and postal service is unreliable. Multiple families may share a post office box. To prevent illegal ballot gathering or coercion, many states have made turning ballots in for others a crime, which prevents people in these communities from delivering mail for their neighbors. Prior to the outbreak, Florida Republicans advanced a bill that would have prohibited individuals from helping with or mailing a ballot for anyone outside of their family if they received a “benefit” for doing so. The bill died in the Florida Senate last week.

There is “no effort to put native communities on the grid” to improve mail service, said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University. Language access is also a major issue in native communities, where some languages are spoken but not written. “A lot of Navajos only speak Navajo and they need language assistance. You can’t do that through the mail,” she said.

In 2018, North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District was rocked by an absentee ballot scandal. Leslie McCrae Dowless, a political consultant to GOP congressional candidate Mark Harris, is facing state criminal charges related to running a ballot-gathering scheme, paying people to collect and tamper with absentee ballots. Dowless has denied wrongdoing. Other operatives have applied similar tactics, known as ballot harvesting, to nursing homes, where many residents vote by mail because it’s hard for them to get to polling places. As a result, Texas has passed bipartisan legislation aimed at curtailing voter fraud in nursing homes.

While all types of voter fraud are rare, including mail-in ballot fraud, Patrick said, states must take necessary precautions. She said states should prepay for return postage, accept ballots that are postmarked on or before election day, and ensure there are convenient locations for voters to drop off their own ballots.

“If you do these things, no one needs to pick up your ballot — it’s convenient for voters to maintain power and authority over their own ballot,” she said. “Not doing these things risks a situation where a voter has waited until the last day, and someone shows up at their door offering to take their ballot and they see it as their last opportunity. That could be someone with good intentions or not.”

States have varying standards for verifying that a ballot was sent by the proper voter. Generally, mailed ballots require voters to sign the back of the envelope, and that signature is compared to signatures on file. Some states — like Colorado — match signatures using software. Others have trained staff in forensic signature verification. But some states and counties still rely on poorly trained poll workers. Many states and counties have not digitized signatures on file through the Department of Motor Vehicles or other state agencies, making it hard to automate the process by November.

If a signature is flagged as a mismatch, the ballot is either held pending a determination of validity or tossed, depending on state law. The amount of time that voters have to “cure,” or confirm, a signature that has been questioned varies by state. In some states, voters have several days to contact the elections office to solve the problem. In others, they are never told if their ballots weren’t counted because of a signature issue and are not allowed to verify them. Such policies have spurred pending lawsuits in Texas and Michigan. As a result of a settlement of the ACLU lawsuit, Gwinnett redesigned its envelope, and Georgia has to offer voters an opportunity to correct their ballots.

States that have gained proficiency in mail-in voting, like Colorado, have sophisticated tracking systems that allow a voter to see where his or her ballot is at any given time and know when it’s been counted or if there is a problem. While these systems significantly increase ballot security, they are expensive, and it may not be possible to implement them before November.

McReynolds said there is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to mailed ballot security. “States certainly need to look at other states who have implemented good systems,” she said. “A lot of this has been documented and trainings are ready to go.”

Regardless of the path states choose to take, Patrick said, they need to begin preparing for November now. “We don’t know what we are going to be faced with then. It could be even worse.”

Derek Willis contributed reporting.

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