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Ballot box or mailbox? Voting by mail increases turnout

Voting by mail increases voter turnout, raises concerns about security and election office workload

July 20, 2020
By Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer , Estherville News

In the 2020 primary held last month, more than a half million voters cast ballots, surpassing the previous high by almost 100,000 voters.

This month, after some back and forth with the Iowa Legislature, Secretary of State Paul Pate is again sending ballot applications to every actively registered voter in Iowa, joining 11 other states in doing so. Tammy Patrick of Democracy Fund said, "The most efficient way to go is to mail out to every voter."

Studies by the Democracy Fund and others show the vast majority of voters feel voting by mail is something they support.

Patrick said, "New voters may not know they have options in voting. This year, wherever people register to vote, we want to make sure they know they have options."

Voting by mail is not new. It started during the Civil War. Then as now, election officials compared signatures to those on file and took other measures to alleviate voter impersonation fraud - in which one person impersonates another in order to vote twice or vote while not eligible.

This is the kind of fraud with the most imagined scenarios, but the least attempted or completed fraud in the system, Patrick said.

The push for requiring photo identification at the polls targets impersonation of a voter. Patrick said it's looking for a problem to solve that doesn't exist.

"Often when you hear people talking about voter fraud, they are also talking about election fraud," Patrick said.

Fraud in elections is a case of infinitesimal amounts: four or five zeroes after the decimal point of a percent.

In this year of COVID-19, social distancing has influenced the say voters interact. Voters are not interacting with candidates, campaigns, third-party groups or others to get registered or fill out absentee requests.

The official absentee ballot request mailed to voters has bar-coded, pre-populations information as it is entered into the voter registration system. Hundreds of thousands or millions of applications have efficiencies built in, Patrick said.

When voters pick up applications at voter registration drives or other places, they handwrite the information and sometimes the legibility is up to interpretation.

Other times, the candidate, campaign or PAC has the ballot app come back to the campaign instead of the election office, and then the application either makes the rounds a few times before the problem is caught, a big issue if the application was sent close to the deadline, or it's lost and the voter doesn't receive the ballot.

This was the issue in the highly-publicized Milwaukee case in which several bins of election mail were not properly directed and there were 749 ballots never delivered.

Bulk mail like ballot applications for every voter in a state are processed at mail houses before they reach the post office, generally.

Patrick said, "It's a problem to apply for ballots late int eh game. A ballot applied for takes a minimum of 24-48 hours to process, especially if they have tens or hundreds of thousands. Close deadlines set up voters for failure, "Patrick said.

But there's a way voters can flatten this curve, too: by requesting ballots early and returning them quickly.

"We deliver democracy," Patrick said. "It's not just another envelope. It's someone's vote. WE've worked with a lot of post offices to help them rethink their role in elections."

Patrick said this year's election story may be a COVID-19 story.

"No one wants to be the headline, but there are a million things that can get you there," Patrick said.

Design is one factor: a poorly designed envelope, ballot request form, ballot or even label can send ballots back to the voter when it's meant to go to the election office. The Center for Civic Design has created forms for numerous states to make clear, attractive, effective ballot request forms.

The U.S. Postal Service receives tags to label and clearly identify bins of election mail.

Patrick suggests voters so inclined use informed delivery - an added layer of security that lets mail customers know what's in the mailbox so they know when they have received their ballot request form or ballot.

There is also a link available to track the ballot as it goes out in the mail.

Despite these technological advances, this election will not be without its challenges.

"We may need to get comfortable with the idea that some races will not be called on election night," Patrick said.

Election official teams who used various facilities for this primary have in some places been told, "You can't come back in November," due to the deep cleaning necessary for use. Others, like Emmet County, used the hangar-like building at the fairgrounds in June that worked well up until the major storm hit, Emmet County Auditor Amy M. Sathoff said at the time, but would not be practical in November.

Voting by mail may delay results due to resources and timelines in any given precinct or district.

"Precinct-based election results no longer tell the full picture. I might have one vote-by-mail ballot in every precinct, and the current system will say I have results from every precinct," Patrick said.

As with many things, the system can be fast, cheap or accurate, pick two.

"The most precious resource may be time, and it's running out," Patrick said.

Even if a voter sends in their ballot the first moment they can, officials cannot begin processing ballots until Election Day.

"Some places will have millions of mailed ballots, and they're not going to be able to touch packets or do any verification or anything until Election Day," Patrick said.

Patrick said a change in postmaster general could influence the vote by mail system.

"The new postmaster general says the USPS will not wait for late deliveries, not wait for a late truck, if the clock says it's time to go, shut off the equipment, even with mail in it," Patrick said.

This may create issues with postmarking because up to this point any mail picked up on any given day would be postmarked that day. The plant would stay open and process mail to postmark mail dropped off that day, even if they mark it after midnight.

One resource to find out what's happening up to the minute is

Patrick said at the ballot box or mailbox, it is voters' voices that make this country run, and make it great in any election year.



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