VOA Examines Technology Securing Vote-by-Mail Nationwide

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Voice of America has a new piece examining the technology in place to secure vote-by-mail across the country as more and more voters seek to take advantage of that method to cast ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic. Take a look:

It’s going to be a record year for voting by mail in the U.S. election and that has raised security concerns about each step of the process.

But election officials say they have systems in place to make voting by mail a success even as health concerns about voting during the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing states to expand their current vote-by-mail options.

“Somewhere between 90 million and 105 million ballots might come through the mail,” said Eddie Perez, global director of technology development at the OSET Institute, a nonprofit election technology organization. “If what we’re seeing in other primary elections is any guide, it’s probably safe to estimate that somewhere between 65% and 75% of all ballots cast in the November election might come by mail.”

Election offices are looking to assure the public that mail voting is backed by some significant technological safeguards intended to protect voters and the overall process:

[E]lection experts say that the mail-in voting process has checks throughout, enhanced by technology and election software, starting with the ballot sent to the voter.

“Sometimes you hear talk as if blank ballots are simply being sent out into the world almost willy-nilly without control,” Perez said. “And that’s simply not the case. There’s always a tight association between a voter whose eligibility has already been verified and the step of actually sending that voter a ballot.”

Once the voter mails in or drops off the ballot, the county’s voting software system goes to work. Digital scanners take images of the ballot envelope to make sure the voter’s signature on the outside matches the one the county has on file. Barcoded information on the ballots is scanned and cross-referenced with the voter registration record.

“The county always knows who has been issued a ballot, is that indeed an eligible voter, is every single ballot received coming from an eligible voter,” Perez said. “Once those traps have been run, there’s a critical process verifying that the ballot and the voter’s name on the ballot actually came from the voter.”

A digital scanner scans the ballots and counting begins. Any anomaly – a missing or wrong signature, a stray mark – is sent to a team to review.

That process adds time, but it also builds in transparency:

Neal Kelley is the registrar of voters for Orange County, California. He expects to start processing mailed-in ballots 30 days before the official election day.

“There’s multiple times those ballots run through that automation because it’s like a factory floor,” he said. “It’s quality control standards, because we have to look at the signature more closely.”

Voters can track their ballot’s progress, much like the way they can track a package being delivered – via text messages or a ballot tracking app, Kelley said.

“It actually gives you more data than your Amazon package,” he said.

Despite these procedures, advocates are still working to ensure that as many vote by mail ballots as possible can get counted:

But voting by mail isn’t a panacea. Not all who vote get their ballots counted. In California’s March 2020 primary, about 100,000 mail-in ballots – about 1.5% of the 7 million turned in – did not get counted, according to the Associated Press.

Common problems with mail-in ballots include those mailed too late, voters failing to sign ballot envelopes and voters’ signatures not matching the ones the county has on file.

Reforms around the country have addressed these problems. This year, California has extended the window for when mail ballots need to arrive to be counted: 17 days after Election Day. If there is a problem with a ballot, such as problem matching the ballot’s signature with the one on file, counties must contact voters to see if they can fix the problem.

But even with those reforms, Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, said she worries about one group – young and new voters.

“They have three strikes against them,” she said. “They are unfamiliar with voting. They are not very familiar with how the U.S. Postal Service works. And they’re not used to making a signature. They don’t write checks. They don’t sign checks. So you put all those three together, and it means we have a lot of outreach and education work.”

Kudos to VOA for this article, which is timely; as vote-by-mail numbers rise across the country, there has been more concern – independent of the inevitable partisan rhetoric – about how these ballots are handled and verified. Here’s hoping that election officials will continue to “show their work” on VBM and other parts of the voting process as a way to assure voters that the election process is reliable and secure in the run-up to November. Stay tuned …

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