Absentee, Mail Ballots Pose Different, But Not Necessarily New Challenges for Election Administration


[Image courtesy of lucreid]

One of my personal highlights of every election year is seeing large media outlets “discover” one or more aspects of election administration. The latest example is the New York Times‘ recent front-page article looking at the “error and fraud” involved with absentee and vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots. Here’s the basic premise:

[S]tates are swiftly moving from voting at a polling place toward voting by mail. In the last general election in Florida, in 2010, 23 percent of voters cast absentee ballots, up from 15 percent in the midterm election four years before. Nationwide, the use of absentee ballots and other forms of voting by mail has more than tripled since 1980 and now accounts for almost 20 percent of all votes.

Yet votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth, statistics show. Election officials reject almost 2 percent of ballots cast by mail, double the rate for in-person voting.

That premise is accurate and I have no quarrel with the reporting, which covers an impressive array of practitioners, advocates and academics on the topic of absentee/VBM ballots.

I do think, however, that the piece misses the mark in that it seems imply 1) that the challenges with absentee voting/VBM are unique and 2) that it’s possible somehow to reverse the upward trend in demand for such ballots nationwide.

It is undeniable that ballots cast outside the polling place – especially those mailed in for counting – have vulnerabilities, whether it’s missing signatures, insufficient postage or more insidious practices like the so-called “granny farming” described in the article. Indeed, my friend and colleague Charles Stewart has observed that absentee/VBM systems are “leaky” in terms of lost votes. Using preliminary 2008 statistics, he found that

36 million people requested mail ballots in 2008, whereas only 28 million absentee ballots were counted, leading to a “leakage” in the absentee ballot pipeline of 8 million ballots, or roughly 20% of requests.

Where did the leaks occur? The data from these studies suggest that 4 million ballots were requested but not received, 3 million were transmitted but not returned for counting, and 800,000 ballots were returned for counting, but rejected.

These numbers are disconcerting and definitely pose a challenge to election officials, but it’s important to remember that other forms of voting also come with their own particular challenges. Traditional polling place voting relies heavily on well-functioning machines and pollworkers, and breakdowns there can and do result in lost votes. Newer multi-precinct polling places require everyone involved to ensure that voters get the correct ballot, and generate pressure on election officials to prevent invalid ballots cast due to pollworker error. Even the trend toward Election Day vote centers involves consolidation of polling locations that may or may not create problems for voters unable to travel to the vote center on Election Day. [I will also note the prospect of Internet voting and then back slowly away.]

In other words, we are finally coming to understand that choosing one or modes of voting – and establishing procedures and safeguards to ensure each one runs smoothly – is less of an empirical exercise than a policy choice for election officials. Every mode of voting – including absentee/VBM – comes with its own set of costs, benefits, opportunities and threats that must be taken into account when conducting elections in the field. Early estimates on the “leakiness” of absentee/VBM seem to suggest it is higher than other modes of voting, but it isn’t clear whether that’s inherent or a function of how new it is in many communities.

Moreover, I simply don’t see election officials or policymakers being able to reverse the absentee voting/VBM trend. American voters, especially younger voters, appear to be abandoning the traditional polling place in ever-increasing numbers. I’m not sure that a front-page Times piece is going to be enough to persuade them to return.

Given this steady demand, I think the implied question in the Times piece (“Is absentee/VBM a good idea?”) is the wrong one to ask. A better question is “given the demand for absentee voting /VBM, how can we ensure that the process works the way it’s supposed to? Absentee voting/VBM may be a policy choice, but making that choice work is the province of election administrators nationwide.

2 Comments on "Absentee, Mail Ballots Pose Different, But Not Necessarily New Challenges for Election Administration"

  1. Somehow I managed to miss the excellent observations of the Brennan Center’s Larry Norden:

    There are at least three things that states and counties can do to make sure more votes are counted:

    First, work with usability, design, and plain language experts to improve the design of the envelope to eliminate confusing design and language that can lead voters to make technical mistakes that invalidate otherwise legitimate votes. As noted in Better Design, Better Ballots, Minnesota did this in 2009 and 2011, and most likely saved thousands of votes with improved design.

    Second, improve the design of the ballots themselves. One great source of suggestions for how to do that is here. As Professors Michael Alvarez, Charles Stewart and Dustin Beckett of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project have noted, voters who vote by mail do not have the benefit of polling place machines, which can “tell” voters if they chose too many candidates or skipped a contest and give them an opportunity to correct mismarked ballots. Nor can such voters easily call on poll workers or election officials for help if they have a problem. The result seems to be that even voters who properly fill out the ballot envelope are far more likely to lose their votes because of mistakes on the ballots themselves.

    Finally, adopt procedures to allow election officials to contact voters when their absentee ballot envelopes are technically insufficient so they can correct them and ensure their votes will be counted. Minnesota did that in 2009. Some, including then Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, tried to get this same fix in place in Ohio in 2009. Unfortunately, they ultimately failed.


  2. [Belatedly] sharing this comment from faithful reader Dave Ammons in Washington State:

    Thanks for the piece. In Washington state, the move to all vote-by-mail was evolutionary over the past several decades, as individual voters opted more and more for permanent status as no-excuse absentee voters, eventually accounting for well over half of the registered voters. This was followed by switch to all-VBM by county elected leaders accountable to the voters, and finally, with full embrace of the Legislature, the system went statewide in 2009. It was not sold as cost-savings, but as a system that fits the 21st Century lives of people and enfranchises people who may be placebound or not around on one particular Election Day. Issues of security, curing ballots that arrive without a signature, and reconciling received ballots and counted ballots all receive careful attention. Each mail-in ballot gets a review by election workers before going to tabulators and canvassing boards get a good workout whenever voter intent is in question, or when other problems occur. Full count is the goal, and people can track whether their ballot has been received by the elections departments. We have not received reports of spousal coercion or nursing home bundling of ballots, etc., but would investigate/prosecute that. Some of us miss the civic ritual of the polling place, but the vote-by-mail system seems very popular in our state.

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