Voting by mail and the next election meltdown

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Steve Hutkins

In the November election, more than one out of five votes will be cast by mail. If it’s close, the election could be contested like Gore-Bush in 2000, and arcane postal matters, like USPS postmark policies and service standards, could take center stage in a bitter fight to the finish.
Polls released this week indicate that the November presidential election could be very close, much closer than previously expected.  In most elections, the margin of victory is large enough to avoid questions about how the votes were cast and counted, but when elections are close and contested, things like how the voting machines function and what constitutes a valid ballot can become very significant.

With voting by mail  becoming increasingly common — according to a recent study by PEW Trusts, more than 20 percent of votes are now cast by mail nationwide — the possibility of a major controversy involving mail ballots is also increasing.

Like other voting methods, voting by mail is not perfect.  Sometimes ballots are lost in the mail, sometimes they arrive at election centers after the deadline.  Mail voting is susceptible to fraud, there can be disagreements over whether a ballot is valid due to a postmark issue, and it may take days or weeks to count all the ballots, which can mean long delays without a clear victor.

A new report issued last week by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) entitled “The New Realities of Voting by Mail in 2016” discusses several key issues, such as the challenges facing the Postal Service in delivering and tracking ballots and ensuring that voters know the deadlines for requesting and casting a ballot.  The report also makes a number of recommendations that would help avoid some of the problems with voting by mail, but implementing them will take time, perhaps more time than we have before the next election.

If the November election is close in even just a couple of battleground states or Congressional contests, the results may hinge on votes cast by mail and how they get counted.  Topics like the Postal Service’s service standards for on-time delivery and its postmarking practices may end up in the news the same way the hanging chads did in Florida in 2000.  Problems with the count could lead to an election meltdown similar to Gore-Bush in 2000.  It could get ugly.  Read More

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American Law Institute issues report on Early & Absentee Voting and Resolution of a Disputed Presidential Election

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The American Law Institute has released its updated Principles of the Law, Election Administration: Non-Precinct Voting and Resolution of Ballot-Counting Disputes, Part I: Principles of Non-Precinct Voting: Early In-Person Voting and Absentee Voting and Part III: Procedures for the Resolution of a Disputed Presidential Election.

The report includes a discussion of the issues involved with when ballots arrive with respect to deadlines and how postmarks — or the lack of postmarks — can become crucial in determining the outcome of close elections.

“Disputed elections have played a large role in our national consciousness over the last two decades, mostly as a result of the 2000 presidential election but also because of high-profile senatorial and gubernatorial elections,” said Richard L. Revesz, Director of The American Law Institute. “Presidential elections present distinct issues for a number of reasons, including the importance of what is at stake, the very compressed five-week period, and the potential legal risks of not having procedures in place when the dispute arises.”

“Our effort to identify sound principles have been guided by the overarching norm that a well-functioning democracy involves robust electoral competition between two or more parties, and specifically in the American context that the ground rules for this competition must be seen as fair by the two major parties, rather than as the imposition of one party’s preferred rules upon the other,” added the project’s Associate Reporter Steven F. Huefner.  Read the report here.

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Ohio Secretary of State blames Postal Service for absentee ballot problem

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ABC13: Hundreds of voters in northwest Ohio say they have not received their absentee ballots in the mail.

The problem starts seems to start at the mail sorting center in Pontiac, Michigan.

The ballots were sent from Lucas, Wood and five other counties October 12. But twenty days later, many still have not been delivered.

Tuesday, Ohio Secretary of State, Jon Husted, visited the board of elections office in Wood County. He says voting has gone smoothly in Ohio except for this absentee ballot problem.

Husted puts the blame squarely on the postal system, saying, “It’s completely unacceptable. The post office needs to do a better job.”  Read more.

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USA Today: Better hope the election’s not close

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USA Today: Trump’s claims of a ‘rigged’ system don’t bode well if the vote count goes into overtime and Clinton eventually wins….

All states count some ballots late, and those tend to break towards Democrats. Nothing nefarious occurs: the casting and counting follow procedures laid out in state law. Some of the states that count more late ballots are key battlegrounds, magnifying the suspense on Election Night.

Mail ballots are one of two types that can shift election results. Many states require mail ballots to be received by election officials on Election Day. Others continue to accept ballots postmarked on Election Day, up to two weeks following the election. Among these states are Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

These late ballots may break towards the Democrats. My analysis shows more Democrats than Republicans in Iowa and North Carolina have yet to return their mail ballots. Why? These voters tend to be younger people who tend to return their ballots later. If Trump is slightly ahead in a late mail-ballot return state, he could fall behind after all the mail ballots are counted….

The unofficial prayer of election officials is “please let it be a landslide, or at least a decisive margin.” When 140 million people do anything, including voting, it is only human nature that some things go wrong. These blemishes are magnified out of proportion when an election is close. In 2000 the boogeyman was the hanging chad. In 2016 the gremlin could be provisional ballots. For all our sakes, and for the legitimacy of American democracy, let’s hope that this is merely a cautionary tale.  Read more.

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Voting Early, and in Droves: Nearly 22 Million Ballots Are Already In

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New York Times: With nine days until the general election, almost 22 million people have already voted, through early voting and absentee ballots.

In many states, the number of early voters is lower than at the same point in the 2012 cycle. In Texas, however, the number of early voters is sharply higher than in the previous presidential election. A closer look at those votes — most of which were cast before the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, announced on Friday that the bureau was reviewing a new trove of emails related to Hillary Clinton — also shows that across all states with available data, early voting has increased among Hispanics and decreased among young people.

So far, 15 states have provided daily totals of votes cast by mail-in ballots or at special early voting station. The numbers were compiled by a data analytics firm, Catalist, allowing a comparison between early voting in 2016 and 2012.

Texas stands out for a changing pattern in early voting: In 15 of the state’s largest counties, the number of early voters this year is 42.6 percent higher than at the same point in the 2012 election.  Read more.

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1,500 absentee ballot requests found in Rock Island, IL post office

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Dispatch-Argus: Authorities want to know why more than 1,500 absentee ballot applications in Rock Island County  in Illinois were not collected and returned to the county clerk’s office.

Rock Island County State’s Attorney John McGehee on Friday afternoon confirmed the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Department, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Postal Inspector Service and his office are investigating the incident.

“If something was being done to try and suppress the vote, it is a violation of the election code, which is a felony,” Mr. McGehee. “That’s why this is an ongoing investigation to see if anybody is doing that or not.

Mr. McGehee said he was alerted this week that 1,511 absentee ballot applications were never returned to county election officials. Instead, they sat languishing in a Rock Island post office box.  Read more.

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Hundreds of absentee ballots missing in Ohio

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ABC13: Hundreds of absentee ballots are missing from several counties in Northwest Ohio. Now an investigation is underway to figure out what happened.

Those ballots were requested by voters and sent out by county boards of elections in early October.

They made it to a sorting center in Pontiac, Michigan but they didn’t get to where they were supposed to go after that.

We’re talking about more than 400 ballots. Congressman Bob Latta and the Ohio Secretary of State met with postal service representatives. 13abc is told solutions are being sought and that some of those ballots are back on their way.  Other ballots may be lost and that means they’ll have to be reissued.  Read more.

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Trump Melts Down And Accuses The US Postal Service Of Stealing The Election For Clinton

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PoliticusUSA: At a rally in Golden, CO, Trump said:

I have real problems with ballots being sent. Does that make sense?

Like people saying, “Oh, here’s a ballot. Here’s another ballot. Throw it away. Oh, here’s one I like. We’ll keep that one.”

I have real problems, so get your ballots in.

Trump also accused election officials of throwing away ballots, as his rally was a mixture of claims of voter fraud and baseless speculation about Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Donald Trump appears to be losing his mind. He also seems to think that accusing the US Postal Service and election officials of stealing the election for Hillary Clinton is going to motivate Republicans to vote.

Consider the contradiction in Trump’s message. The Republican nominee tells his supporters that the US Postal Service is throwing away ballots, while at the same time he is urging them to mail in their ballots.  Read more.

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Trump Suggests That Election Officials Will Throw Away Mail-In Ballots

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Talking Points Memo: Donald Trump suggested in a speech at a Colorado rally on Saturday that election officials will throw away mail-in ballots if they don’t “like” them.

“I have real problems with ballots being sent,” Trump said, according to a transcript by NBC’s Ali Vitali and Emily Gold. “People say, oh, here’s a ballot, bing. Here’s another ballot, throw it away. Oh, here’s one I like, we’ll keep that one.”

Trump claimed that there are “a lot of people” watching election officials.

“We’re trying to have some pretty good supervision out there,” he said. “We have a lot of people watching you people that collect the ballots.”

Trump has repeatedly claimed that the election will be rigged against him. His repeated calls for vigilante poll watchers drew attention to the consent decree the Republican National Committee signed in 1982, which banned the “ballot security efforts” that Trump has encouraged from his supporters.

On Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee asked a federal court to hold the RNC in contempt of court for allegedly violating the same consent decree, and to block any coordination between Trump and the RNC that relates to Election Day poll monitoring activities.

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‘New reality’ of vote-by-mail includes delays and problems with postmarks

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News Tribune: The U.S. Postal Service isn’t delivering mail as quickly as it used to, and elections officials say that has the potential to disrupt voting-by-mail in the first presidential election since the service changes took effect last year.

First-class mail, which includes ballots, no longer arrives at its destination within one to three days, but instead takes two to five days — a reality that led the Postal Service this year to advise elections officials that voters should mail their ballots back a week before Election Day.

Theoretically, the longer delivery timeline shouldn’t matter in a state like Washington, where ballots are deemed valid based on the date they are postmarked, as opposed to the day they arrive at election offices.

But documents show that Postal Service officials also have noted issues with postmarking of ballots — and that’s what has elections officials in Washington and across the country especially worried.

“Elections officials have indicated illegible or missing postmarks are an issue,” according to a presentation the Postal Service prepared for election officials in August.

At that time, the agency said it was “working with elections officials to identify (the) scope of (the) problem.” Read more.

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Americans Love Early Voting, And It Might Help Clinton

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FiveThirtyEight: Early voting is already underway in many states, and this election season offers more opportunities than ever for voters to cast a ballot ahead of Election Day. Massachusetts and Minnesota, for example, are offering newly expanded early voting options, and other states are expanding mail balloting.

And for the past 16 years, voters across the country have been casting more and more early presidential ballots. According to data from the AP Election Research Group as reported by CBS News, only 16 percent of the votes for president were cast early in 2000, but by 2012, that number had risen to 36 percent. Since 1996, according to data from the Census Bureau, Americans have reported a threefold increase in alternative voting methods. This year, 30 to 40 percent of the vote is expected to come from ballots cast before Nov. 8.

Currently, the turnout of early voters in North Carolina is running slightly behind where it was in 2012, according to Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and an expert on early voting. North Carolina’s registered Republicans were voting more than registered Democrats in mail-in early voting, but once in-person early voting began, turnout spiked among registered Democrats. In Iowa, which is currently a tossup state, Democrats are expected to lead in the early vote, according to McDonald.

Here’s an explanation of how early voting works and what it might mean this year.  Read more.

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