States reporting massive turnout for early voting, mail-in ballots

FILE – In this Oct. 15, 2020, file photo, voters line up at an early voting satellite location at the Anne B. Day elementary school in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez, File)

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UPDATED 8:33 AM PT – Saturday, October 17, 2020

Millions of voters have showed up at the polls and sent in their mail-in ballots in what’s being called an “unprecedented” early voting turnout. Concerns about the coronavirus and mail-in voting have been cited for the remarkable turnout.

According to recent reports, more than 21 million voters have cast their ballots either in person or through the mail so far. Around 1.4 million people had already voted by this time during 2016, accounting for more than 15 percent of the total votes during that election.

The Georgia state secretary said nearly 130,000 people cast ballots in the state Monday, smashing the nearly 91,000 votes cast on the first day of the 2016 election. One county said it saw a 484 percent increase from the first day of voting.

Georgia voters expressed a sense of urgency driving them to the polls, saying this election seems to be more complex due to the ongoing pandemic and the candidates.

“I would strongly recommend coming early and getting it done, that way you know it’s done,” stated Georgia resident Steve Butts. “It’s in the system, you don’t have to hear about it on the 6:00 o’clock news about ‘they found a burlap bag full of ballots’ in, you know, out in the woods somewhere.”

In Texas, where early voting started Tuesday, more than 1 million votes have already been cast in a record turnout. Nearly 17 million Texans registered to vote this year, which is up nearly 2 million since 2016.

In Ohio, nearly 200,000 residents cast early votes this week compared to around 64,000 during the same week in the last election.

Meanwhile in North Carolina, voters waited for up to three hours to cast their ballots in some areas when early voting started Thursday.

It’s a beautiful day, people are eager to vote,” said North Carolina resident Jason Roberts. ” If you wait and go next week, I think you’ll see the lines will not be nearly as long as they are today and it will be a much faster process for someone who doesn’t have the time to stand outside.”

According to reports, the number of first time voters choosing to vote early has more than doubled compared to 2016. More than 2 million infrequent voters have also cast ballots compared to 658,000 during the last election.

Officials said the steps taken by states to make it easier to register to vote and cast a ballot likely contributed to the increased turnout. In Virginia, for example, voters can now vote absentee without having to provide a reason and lawmakers have made Election Day a state holiday.

Registered Democrats are reportedly “significantly” outnumbering Republicans in this early turnout and have returned nearly 2.5 million more ballots. However, GOP officials said they are not concerned while pointing out a majority of Republican voters prefer to vote in person, especially on Election Day.

“This is a pattern we are seeing across other states as well — that Democrats in particular are very motivated to turnout, but they are also very motivated to either vote by mail or vote early,”stated Seth Masket, Director of the Center on American Politics, University of Denver. “There is a good deal of enthusiasm among Republicans as well, they are more interested in voting close to or on Election Day.”

One expert who tracks polling data said Democrats may be doing Republicans a favor by voting early thus clearing out polling places for Republicans to vote come Election Day.

RELATED: Thousands of Ohio voters receive the wrong mail-in ballot

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NY officials optimistic about fixes to mail-in voting system – Long Island Business News

With the clock ticking down to Election Day, officials are cautiously optimistic New York has fixed problems with mail-in voting that led to delays and disenfranchisement in a rocky June primary.

As many as 4 to 5 million New Yorkers are expected to cast absentee ballots after Gov. Andrew Cuomo authorized their widespread use because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the primary, two out of five votes were cast by mail, an unprecedented ratio that strained a system that normally handles fewer than 1 in 20 votes.

Local election boards struggled to get ballots into voters’ hands on time. There was confusion about ballots arriving without a postmark to indicate whether they had been mailed by Election Day. Thousands of mailed ballots were disqualified over technical issues, like missing signatures.

But after a summer of refinements, officials say the state is better prepared.

“I don’t anticipate that it’s going to be perfect,” state board of election commissioner Douglas Kellner said. “But I do think it will be pretty good.”

Among the fixes:

—The state let voters request absentee ballots earlier — in late August, rather than early October.

—It redesigned ballot envelopes to make it clear where voters must put their signature.

—Some archaic reasons for rejected ballots are gone.

—Absentee ballots will no longer be disqualified if someone changes the color of their ink or switches from a pen to a pencil while filling out the form.

—In maybe the biggest change, election officials must now notify voters by phone or email within 24 hours if there is a problem with their ballot. Voters will get either five or seven days to fix problems, depending on when their ballot arrived at the elections office.

Before those changes, New York’s rate of rejected absentee ballots had been among the nation’s highest. During the 2018 midterm elections, 34,095 absentee ballots — nearly 14% of those cast — were disqualified by elections officials, according to advocacy group League of Women Voters.

“There are always problems with every human system, but the good news is that there’s ample time to fix them and voters have plenty of options,” Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner said. “The most important thing is to make a plan to vote now, and then have a back-up plan in case you need it.”

Concerns remain.

New York is the largest of over two dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio, where voters can request an absentee ballot as late as Oct. 27 — seven days before the election.

That leaves little time for officials to process an application and mail out the ballot in time for the voter to have it back in the mail by Election Day.

Between 100,000 to 200,000 voters didn’t receive their absentee ballot in time for the June primary, according to Kellner.

He urged voters to request and mail back ballots early.

“It’s time for voters to make their decision on how they’re going to vote now and not wait until the last minute,” he said.

For the primary, the state also inadvertently created a problem by sending voters a postage-paid return envelope for their absentee ballot. Because postage wasn’t required, postal workers in Brooklyn then failed to put a postmark on nearly 4,900 of those envelopes, leading to uncertainty about whether they were mailed by an Election Day deadline.

For the general election, voters will have to buy stamps. Additionally, a new law allows ballots without a postmark to be counted, as long as they are received no later than a day after Election Day.

Two dozen voters and candidates worried about postal delays have asked a federal court to extend that deadline to seven days.

Statewide, nearly 1.4 million people have requested an absentee ballot so far, officials said.

In New York City, elections officials are trying to ensure a major mishap doesn’t wind up costing people their vote. A printing error meant that nearly 100,000 ballots initially sent to general election voters in the city displayed the wrong names on ballot envelopes.

Replacement ballots were sent out, and officials have promised that people who mailed back ballots in the misprinted envelopes will have a chance to correct the problem.

New Yorkers can also vote early, in-person, this year between Oct. 24 and Nov. 1. Marla Garfield, 46, of Brooklyn, said she received her replacement absentee ballot quickly but plans to now drop off her ballot herself during the early voting period to make sure there are no issues.

“You just hope that they have a system in place for it to not be a problem when we go vote,” she said.

Cost-cutting at the U.S. Postal Service has led to concerns that some ballots mailed close to the deadline will be delayed, but Kellner said he was “confident that the post office is taking those obligations seriously and doing what they reasonably can to make sure that all election mail will be properly and efficiently processed.”

Unlike some other states, New York hasn’t expanded the use of ballot drop boxes besides the usual locations found at voting sites and local election offices.

Once the votes are in, local elections boards face the challenge of counting them. That process took weeks in some contests during the primary. Delays were compounded by insufficient staff and general inexperience in handling so many mailed-in votes.

“But I don’t expect that to be repeated for the general election,” Kellner said. He said many boards have added staff and bought time-saving equipment.

Onondaga County Elections Commissioner Dustin Czarny said nearly 50,000 out of the 120,000 absentee ballots he expects to get in the mail have already come in.

He’s still concerned with the board’s ability to afford all the extra work needed to process those votes, saying they could use more state funding.

“We’re having to basically throw money and bodies at the situation to try to help ourselves,” Czarny said.

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Mail-in voting: Why Pennsylvania is ground zero for debate

The phone is ringing nonstop in Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County.

“Did the November election get delayed?” 

“Can I still vote by mail?” 

“Why did my wife, who died in 2011, get an application for an absentee ballot with her name and address already filled in?” 

It’s the last category that drives county election director Forrest Lehman and his staff especially batty. Various groups, in an apparent bid to boost voter participation, are sending out a tsunami of pre-filled ballot applications based on voter data that is years out of date. And they have Mr. Lehman’s name on the return label. 

“Their first reaction is to call us and ask, ‘What kind of Mickey Mouse operation are you running?’” he says, comparing it to a denial of service attack, which disables a website by flooding it with traffic. “We can’t get anything else done. … Applications are just piling up while we answer questions.”

Across the country, as states are racing to prepare for holding a high-stakes presidential election amid a pandemic, swing states are coming under particular scrutiny. The tighter the race, the more possible it is that the election could be tipped by a relatively small number of voters who are unable to vote or whose ballots are delayed or disqualified. With a disproportionate number of mailed votes coming from Democrats and studies showing that minority voters experience higher rates of disqualification, such rejections could tip the presidential race to the Republicans. 

Even among the swing states for whom widespread voting by mail is uncharted territory, Pennsylvania stands out. Leading up to this year’s June primary, the state enacted its most sweeping legislation on election administration in 80 years and overhauled voting systems in all 67 counties. Then the pandemic hit, driving a 17-fold increase in mail-in ballots, overwhelming local election officials. It took two weeks to certify all the races and more than 37,000 absentee ballots were rejected – not far off from the 44,292 votes by which Donald Trump won the state in 2016, propelling him to the White House. New polls show Mr. Biden’s lead shrinking to less than the margin of error, indicating a statistical tie with two months to go.

No one wants to be the Florida of 2020 – the one state that the country is waiting on for weeks to determine the results of a contested presidential election. In Pennsylvania, a wide array of officials from local election directors like Mr. Lehman up to Democratic state executives like Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and the Republican-led legislature are working around the clock to ensure that Pennsylvania’s vote is fair, safe, and secure – with clear and prompt results.

While Pennsylvania’s June primary raised concerns about the state’s ability to handle a greater influx of mailed ballots, some say it may in fact have helped build the state’s electoral muscles for a heavier lift this fall.

“We were learning on the fly from February to June,” says Jeff Greenburg, the director of elections in Mercer County until August, when he stepped down to work for The National Vote at Home Institute. “I really think Pennsylvania is in a better position now. … To me we have a much better chance of succeeding because we now know what to do.”

Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP

Supporters cheer outside of Mill 19 on the Hazelwood Greenway, where Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden was speaking inside the building to a small group, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, in Hazelwood, Pennsylvania.

Maximizing voter access while ensuring a secure vote

Pennsylvania was the first state to extend absentee voting to soldiers, before the deployment of thousands of troops to the Civil War caused other states to follow suit during the 1864 presidential election. Last fall, the state expanded the opportunity for voting by mail through Act 77, which introduced “no-excuse” absentee voting, created a 50-day window for voting by mail, and extended the deadline for registering and submitting one’s ballot. 

When the pandemic hit, the state was better prepared to accommodate voters concerned about voting in person. But it also accelerated implementation, taxing election staff and raising concerns about everything from denying people the opportunity to vote to diluting legitimate votes through uneven interpretation of election laws and policies among the counties. The challenge is how best to maximize voter access while ensuring the safety of voters and the security of the voting process, and there are partisan differences over how to strike the right balance.

Following Pennsylvania’s primary, the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee (RNC) launched a lawsuit demanding a uniform interpretation of the state’s election code to guard against abuse and fraud, including through unattended ballot drop boxes that were used in more than a dozen counties.

“Our right to vote is one of the most important, if not the most important, right bestowed upon us,” says Republican Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a plaintiff in the case who served with the Navy in Iraq and says he was proud to fight to protect the right of everyone to vote, regardless of political leaning. In an emailed response to questions, he says a consistent application of the law is the key to ensuring a fair and equal election. “Treating certain areas of the commonwealth differently is an inherent risk to the integrity of our important tradition of making sure every vote counts, and every vote counts equally.”

Many Democrats are also worried about every vote counting, particularly when it comes to minority voters. A lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters demands that Pennsylvania establish a standardized procedure for verifying voter signatures and to join 17 other states that allow voters whose mailed ballots are invalidated for mismatched signatures to be notified and given a chance to “cure” their ballots by verifying their identity.

The case notes that county staff untrained in handwriting analysis are often the ones to throw out ballots based on a signature mismatch, which can disproportionately affect voters who are disabled, elderly, or less educated. The suit cites a study that found that laypeople misidentify genuine signatures as inauthentic 26% of the time.

Another issue that disproportionately affected minority voters in Pennsylvania’s primary was the consolidation of polling places, driven in part by polling worker shortages during the pandemic. The two most populous counties – Philadelphia and Allegheny, which includes Pittsburgh – downsized from 2,100 polling stations to fewer than 500, leading to long lines. African Americans make up nearly half of Philadelphia’s population and nearly a quarter of Pittsburgh’s.

“I think absolutely this is intentional,” says Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters. “It’s a voter suppression tactic.”

“Voter suppression hasn’t gone away,” she adds. “Voter suppression just changes its face based on what’s going on.”

The drop box debate

Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, which is also party to the League of Women Voters suit,  
cites many previous hurdles Black voters have had to overcome – including election officials in the South asking Black voters to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, and only allowing them to vote if they guessed correctly. 

Now, amid national protests over racial injustice, a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black communities, and an unusual election season that has stirred concerns about Black voters’ voices being heard, someone asked Ms. Bush recently, “What else can Black people take? What else is America going to put on us?”

“And I said, if you look at our history, we have handled and managed all of the unfairness that has been put on our shoulders,” says Ms. Bush, whose organization is working with partners to get out the vote in Pittsburgh. “We will get through this as well.”

One option to support Black voters and others looking to avoid long lines, close contact, or mail delays is installing secure ballot drop boxes, which are bolted to the ground and routinely emptied.

“We strongly encourage counties to … make voting as accessible as possible,” including by using drop boxes, Ms. Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, said in an interview. “Do I have the authority to mandate that? I don’t at this time.”

So it’s up to each county to decide whether to use them, how many to deploy, where to place them, and how to monitor them and establish a chain of custody. Amber McReynolds, CEO for The National Vote at Home Institute and the former director of elections for Denver, says the best practice is to have a bipartisan team that’s specifically trained on emptying the boxes and does so on a regular schedule, putting the ballots into sealed boxes and maintaining a chain of custody.

Erie County was one of more than a dozen Pennsylvania counties to utilize the drop box option, installing one at the courthouse where there was lighting and 24-hour surveillance. Chief Clerk Doug Smith says the county was expecting about 8,000 people to vote absentee. Instead it was more than triple that, and about 5,000 ballots came via that single drop box.

Now the use of drop boxes is up in the air due to the Trump lawsuit, which has been suspended until early October pending related litigation on the state level.

The state’s election code requires that each voter deliver his or her own ballot, and the Trump lawsuit argues that unattended drop boxes contravene that provision, since it’s impossible to verify who dropped off the ballots. Local election officials also worry that the boxes could become a political target and the ballots damaged ­­– an irretrievable loss even if the boxes are under constant surveillance and the culprit is identified.

As for concerns about fraud, the number of proven instances remains extremely small and the plaintiffs in the Trump lawsuit were not able to produce any examples from this year’s primary when asked by the federal judge overseeing the case. However, the suit cited examples from the past, including a 1993 special election in Philadelphia that was closely scrutinized because it determined which party would control the state legislature. A federal judge found “massive absentee ballot fraud, deception, intimidation, harassment and forgery” on the part of the victorious Democratic candidate, who was forced to relinquish his seat to his Republican opponent. According to a front-page article in The New York Times, two of the three members of the Board of Elections – both Democrats – “testified that they were aware of the voter fraud, had intentionally failed to enforce the election law and had later tried to conceal their activities by hurriedly certifying the Democratic candidate as the winner.”

“The RNC and Trump campaign continue our fight to protect ballot security and reduce chances for fraud and administrative chaos in November by ensuring campaigns can fairly monitor the casting, collecting and counting of votes,” says Mandi Merritt, national press secretary for the Republican National Committee, in an email. “All voters, regardless of political stripes, deserve to have confidence in their elections system and this lawsuit seeks to restore that integrity.”

Democrats accuse Mr. Trump of making unsubstantiated claims about the potential for widespread fraud to sow doubt about the integrity of the election, and prepare the ground for contesting the results if he doesn’t win.

“The Biden campaign will fight for every Pennsylvanian to make their voice heard this fall, and we’re making sure voters know all of their options to vote: whether it’s by dropping their ballot off at a secure dropbox, voting by mail, or safely in-person,” says Michael Feldman, Pennsylvania communications director for the Biden campaign, in an email to the Monitor.

Secretary Boockvar says in an interview that the greatest challenge leading up to November is the misinformation and disinformation around the voting process. To that end, Pennsylvania has just started a postcard campaign, informing registered voters of their right to vote by mail or in person and pointing them to, the official hub for election information. In addition, a state interagency group that includes everyone from the police to the inspector general to the Department of State is working to combat false information on social media, and ensure that counties have the knowledge and resources to do so as well. Similar initiatives are in place in the cybersecurity domain.

“One of the reasons why I’m really proud and confident in Pennsylvania’s election security and preparedness for the November election is because of the strength of those collaborations,” says Secretary Boockvar.

State legislature proposes last-minute changes

In the June primary, 1.5 million Pennsylvanians cast their ballot by mail and it took two weeks to certify all the elections. In at least one race, the apparent winner on election night ended up losing. Some are concerned that could happen in the November presidential election. With far more Democrats planning to vote by mail than Republicans – 52% compared to 10%, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll – that could create a “blue shift” after polls close and mailed ballots are counted.

“In a primary, in a [state government] office, it’s an inconvenience – it’s not the end of the world,” says Dave Reed, former Republican majority leader in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, who now co-chairs VoteSafe PA, a cross-partisan coalition working to ensure a safe and secure election. “When you’re talking about who’s going to be the next president of the United States, we have to be thorough and prompt.”

Secretary Boockvar says she’s expecting about 3 million people to vote by mail in November. A new bill put forward by the GOP-led state Senate incorporates a number of recommendations her office made in an August report on the primary, one of which would be to facilitate quicker results by allowing local election officials to start opening mailed ballots and preparing them for scanning prior to Election Day. Current state law prohibits doing so before 7 a.m. on Election Day. 

The bill would also allow voters to request ballots earlier and “cure” their ballots in case of a signature mismatch – a practice used in 17 other states by which voters whose ballots were invalidated are notified and given a chance to verify their authenticity. 

“The overwhelming and the overriding goal with this [bill] is to ensure security of the elections, access for voters, and to ensure that we get timely results on election day or shortly after election day – that we’re not looking for weeks afterwards to know what the final results will be,” says Crystal Clark, general counsel to the Senate Republican caucus.

Such changes would ease the Election Day crunch, but it creates uncertainty right now for local election officials, by holding up the printing of ballots, poll worker training manuals, and other delays.

“We certainly recognize that there is an urgency with regard to the changes that are in Senate Bill 10,” says Ms. Clark. 

The Senate is scheduled to reconvene on Sept. 8 and Mr. Reed, the former Republican majority leader, says the bill could be wrapped up within a week if the parties stick to key needs. He’s reasonably optimistic Pennsylvania will manage to pull off the election without any major hitches. After all, it’s more of a 20th-century upgrade than a digital revolution, he says.

“This is not text-your-vote-in, this is not Snapchat; we’re using a mail system,” he says.

But perhaps beyond the legal and logistical challenges is a deeper issue of trust – in the system itself, the people administering it, and even of fellow voters.

“The challenge is going to be making sure that we as a people – we have to understand and believe that we have a greater purpose than just ourselves, and that we have to do everything we can to exuberate love and concern for our fellow human beings,” says Kenneth Huston, president of the Pennsylvania state NAACP who also serves as a pastor. “Somewhere along the lines we’re losing that. And what’s very troubling to me is that people who live in communities in the rural areas, I don’t want them to think that because I’m a Black civil rights leader, I don’t care about them, because I do.”

In more than a dozen interviews for this piece, a wide range of people across the political spectrum emphasized a common desire for a fair and secure election. And the people most well-equipped to ensure that, argues Mr. Lehman of Lycoming County, are the dedicated local election officials across the state.

“They’re probably the best asset this state has to maintain the integrity of election,” he says. “It’s not the election code or the 1s and 0s in the software, it’s having people of integrity in the positions that matter. That’s how you protect this process.”

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President Trump: Americans should ensure mail-in vote is counted

With the USS Battleship North Carolina in the background, President Donald Trump speaks on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, in Wilmington, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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UPDATED 4:05 PM PT – Thursday, September 3, 2020

With just two months until Election Day, the president is ramping up his message to Americans to participate in democracy. Earlier this week, he suggested citizens should try to vote twice to test the functionality of the mail-in ballot system.

During an interview, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany clarified the president is not encouraging anyone do anything unlawful. She explained the president instead wants people to be confident their votes are tabulated amid the “whole new fraudulent system of mail-in voting.”

This came after President Trump suggested Americans test the voting system by trying to cast their ballot in person if they first mailed in their presidential pick.

“If it tabulates, it won’t be able to do that. So let them send it in, let them go vote. If their system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote. That’s the way it is.” – Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States

FILE – In this Aug. 5, 2020, file photo, vote-by-mail ballots are shown in sorting trays at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

On Twitter, the president reiterated Americans need to take precautions so their “vote counts.” He urged voters to make sure their ballots are not “lost, thrown out or in any way destroyed.”

FILE – In this June 1, 2020, file photo a stack of table top voting booths are stored at the Allegheny County Election Division’s warehouse on the Northside of Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

In the meantime, critics have accused him of trying to encourage people to commit a felony. Attorney General William Barr has said they’re missing the mark on the real danger America is facing.

Barr stated it’s been widely acknowledged for years that mail-in voting heightens the potential for fraud and other grave risks. This year, he claimed Democrats have flipped the narrative.

He went on to discuss the significance of trust in election results amid a time of national debate and turmoil.

“We’re a very closely divided country here. People have to have confidence in the results of the election and the legitimacy of the government. People trying to change the rules to this methodology, which as a matter of logic is open to fraud and conversion, is reckless and dangerous. People are playing with fire.” – William Barr, U.S. Attorney General

MORE NEWS: AG Barr: Mail-In Ballots Enable Fraud, Voter Coercion

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AG Barr: Mail-in ballots enable fraud, voter coercion

President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf arrive at Andrews Air Force Base after a trip to Kenosha, Wis., Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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UPDATED 8:14 AM PT – Thursday, September 3, 2020

Attorney General William Barr vowed to prevent voter fraud related to mail-in ballots in a heated interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

During the exchange, Barr said the Department of Justice has reviewed hundreds of claims of fraud and coercion with mail-in ballots over the past 10 years.

“The only time the narrative changed is after this administration came in, but elections that have been held with mail have found substantial fraud and coercion,” he explained. “For example, we indicted someone in Texas…1,700 ballots collected from people who could vote, he made them out and voted for the person he wanted to.”

Barr also compared mail-in voting to “playing with fire” by saying it may further erode public confidence in the federal government.

RELATED: President Trump shares report of 20K suspicious mail-in ballots cast in Detroit primary

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The postmaster always rings twice – More mail-in voting doubles the chances of recounts in close states | United States

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY goes into its virtual convention next week in a mess. According to The Economist’s election model, the president is trailing by nine points in the popular vote and is currently expected to end up roughly 70 electoral votes shy of the 270-vote threshold on polling day. But has Donald Trump found a way to stack the deck in his favour? A large number of Americans will cast votes by post between now and November. And the US Postal Service, which has to deliver those votes, is in the midst of a partisan fight.

The postal service was created by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, and though it has a public-service mandate—to deliver mail to the whole country—it receives no public funding. In recent years it has consistently lost money, because Americans have been sending less first-class mail, among other things. Louis DeJoy, who ran a large logistics firm, was brought in as the postmaster-general in May with a mandate to fix its finances by finding savings.

Yet Mr DeJoy is also a prominent Republican donor. In 2017 he was one of three national finance chairmen of the Republican National Convention, along with Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer (who is now in jail), and Elliott Broidy, an investor. This alarms Democrats, who spy a scheme by the president to steal an election he would otherwise lose.

Mr Trump opposes voting by mail because he thinks it is bad for Republicans. Mr DeJoy’s reorganisation has slowed down mail delivery in a way that therefore seems to accord with the president’s re-election strategy. Panicked voters have been snapping and posting pictures of the famous blue mailboxes, some of which have been carted off as part of the efficiency drive. The postal service’s board of governors, composed of both Republican and Democratic appointees, proposed a $25bn (0.1% of GDP) public subsidy, which House Democrats have taken up. Mr Trump is not keen. “If we don’t make a deal,” he told Fox News, “that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”

The postal service’s capacity has been particularly reduced in cities in swing states such as Pontiac, Michigan; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; and even in Houston, Texas. The USPS warned 46 states that mailed-in ballots could arrive too late to be counted. Mr DeJoy then said that changes to the postal service would be postponed to avoid disrupting the election.

Is that the end of the saga? Not quite. Even if the USPS is functioning as normal, an increase in voting by mail could still have a significant effect on the result. In New York’s primary in July, staffing shortfalls combined with a surge in postal voting meant thousands of ballots were not sent out on time, and many others were discarded for minor technical errors. According to election officials, one out of every five ballots sent by mail were rejected—more than three times the statewide rejection rate from 2016. In November, election workers could be inundated with ballots that could take weeks to count.

Using our election-forecasting model, polls on how likely voters are to vote by mail and how often postal votes typically get rejected, we have tried to quantify the effect that more postal voting might have on the election. There are four factors to consider: the share of voters casting ballots by post; the share of those ballots that get rejected (eg, because they arrive after the deadline); the share of those ballots that get cast for each candidate; and the overall share of the vote going to Mr Trump or to Joe Biden regardless of voting method.

We obtained data on these factors from a variety of sources. For the likelihood of voting by mail, we rely on a Pew Research Centre poll of voters between July 27th and August 2nd. According to this survey, 39% of voters are planning to cast postal votes this year. A 2018 canvass of state data from the United States Election Assistance Commission, which helps states with administrative issues related to voting, revealed that the average rejection rate for postal votes was about 4% in states with the least vote-by-mail infrastructure and experience, and 1% in the best-prepared—though rates in extreme cases can exceed 15%.

For the partisan composition of postal votes, we analysed data from YouGov, which conducts polls on The Economist’s behalf, and found that roughly 80% of voters who are planning to cast their ballots for either Messrs Trump or Biden by post favour the Democratic candidate. Finally, for the share of voters nationally who will pick Mr Biden over Mr Trump, we took predictions from our presidential forecast.

There is no secret formula for combining these numbers. What happens, for example, if even more people vote by mail, but they are less Democratic? What if the race is closer than we predict? To answer these questions, we generated 100,000 different combinations of our four factors and altered the results of our election forecast accordingly. For each simulation, Democrats get punished more by postal-service and election-office inefficiencies (deliberate or not), when the election is close, when more votes are cast by mail and if those votes lean towards Mr Biden. In sum we find that slightly above-average rejection rates for postal ballots could clip about 0.6 percentage points from the Democratic candidate’s vote margin. But in the very unlikely case where rejection rates approach 10% in the average state—more than three times the normal rate—Mr Biden could lose closer to four percentage points relative to his standing in a fair contest (see chart).

Although such a scenario is unlikely, even small glitches with postal voting cause a sizeable increase in the probability of a recount in one of the decisive states. Failure of election workers to attach postmarks to ballots, voters assigning signatures that do not match the state’s rolls (typically because elderly voters have trouble with the pen, or young voters have no record against which to match), and failure to deposit a ballot before the deadline are all common errors that can lead postal votes to be rejected—and they only become more common when more people vote by mail. According to our modelling, the chance that a marginal state ends up in recount territory (typically when the margin between the candidates is less than half a percentage point) is around 5%, before factoring in trouble with vote-by-mail. It nearly doubles to 9% when these postal simulations are taken into account. Few Americans who voted in 2000 will have forgotten that debacle, when after several weeks Florida’s hanging chads decided the presidency. A large increase in voting by mail, plus a big increase in rejected ballots, could lead to a repeat in November, even if Mr DeJoy is as good as his word.

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The postmaster always rings twice”

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Mail-In Voting Could Deliver Chaos

If the 2000 election provoked a constitutional crisis, the 2020 one is flirting with disaster. Debate over voting by mail has focused mostly on the potential for fraud and logistical difficulties. But there are also legal problems with it, which carry the seeds of chaos before Inauguration Day and continuing instability after.

Under federal law, the presidential election must take place on Nov. 3, and the electors chosen on that day must vote on Dec. 14 to select the new president and vice president. These dates can’t be changed…

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The biggest threat to mail-in voting isn’t security—it’s politics

Mail-in voting works. Despite it having been characterized by President Trump as being “fraudulent” and “corrupt” there is no evidence to support those allegations—nor has the President offer any. 

Thirty-four states permit mail-in voting, including six swing states: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. All six of those states allow absentee ballot voting or mail-in voting without providing any reason for voting by mail. Five states do their elections almost entirely by mail, including Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington, and they have reported very little fraud.

According to the federal Election Assistance Commission, approximately 25% of the votes in the 2018 national and state elections were cast via mail-in votes. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, this number can certainly be expected to increase, as this spring’s primaries have indicated.

Mail-in ballots are not perfect. Some have been rejected for a number of reasons, including having been received late by election officials late and voters failing to sign them. However, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the President’s allegations that mail-in voting is “fraudulent in many cases.”

Despite his criticism of mail-in voting in general, the President did tout the mail-in voting system of Florida, which he attributed to that state’s Republican leadership, He went on to say that “Florida is different from other states,” which is puzzling because Florida operates mail-in voting in the same manner as the other 33 states, without requiring a reason for voting by mail.

Delays will occur with processing mail-in ballots. Delays, however, do not mean that the system is fraudulent. Quite the contrary, the delays help ensure legitimacy of the votes. Unfortunately, Congressional Republicans have resisted attempts to provide additional needed funds to the states to help strengthen the mail-in voting process.

The President has continued railing against mail-in voting, calling it “ a great embarrassment to our country,” “fraudulent” and “corrupt,” and creating the perception that this proven safe and secure method of voting could be suspect. This behavior isn’t surprising—in fact, it’s part of a pattern. A disgruntled President Trump who lost the popular vote in the 2016 election by approximately 3 million votes established a panel to investigate election fraud in the 2016 presidential election, and then dissolved the panel in 2018 when its preliminary investigation indicated no significant fraud.

A key factor in the efficiency of mail-in voting is the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service. Rather than gearing up to deal with increased volume of precious votes, the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, whose primary qualification for the job appears to be having contributed more than $1.5 million to President Trump’s campaigns, has taken steps to slow down mail processing by banning necessary overtime, which DeJoy nonsensically defended as intended to “improve operational efficiency.

A July 10th directive from the postmaster general disturbingly states, “One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that—temporarily—we may see mail left behind or on the workroom floors or docks.”

Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, noted in response, “Anything that slows down the mail could have a negative impact on everything we do, including vote by mail.”

According to Kristen Clarke, the president of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the capability of the Postal Service “to timely deliver and return absentee ballots and their work to postmark those ballots will literally determine whether or not voters are disenfranchised during the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans have blocked funding for the Post Office necessary to insure efficient mail-in voting. At the end of last week, some glimmers of hope emerged: In response to intense public pressure, the postmaster general agreed to suspend his cost-cutting measures including those eliminating overtime pay until after the election. And the House, with some Republican votes joining the Democratic majority, passed $25 billion in emergency spending to support the post office—although the president immediately greeted that bill with a veto threat. 

Mail-in voting has demonstrated success when President Trump and his party are not actively working to undermine the process. During a pandemic, requiring voters to weigh exercising their civic duty to vote against concerns for their own personal health is an obstacle of the Trump camp’s creation and design.

Steve Weisman is a senior lecturer in law, taxation and financial planning at Bentley University. He is also the author and creator of

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