Why vote-by-mail may not save our elections from the virus’ disruption

“Rolling something as complex as this out at large-scale introduces thousands of small problems — some of which are security problems, some of which are reliability problems, some of which are resource-management problems — that only become apparent when you do it,” said Matt Blaze, an election security expert and computer science professor at Georgetown Law School. “Which is why changing anything right before a high-stakes election carries risks.”

That’s in addition to other hurdles: Some states would have to change their election laws to allow more time for the labor-intensive task of processing mail-in ballots, which requires more work and people than other types of ballots.

“All deadlines have to be subject to review if we implement something like this,” said Mark Earley, supervisor of elections for Leon County in Florida. “There are 50 states with 50 sets of unique election laws, so everyone has to anticipate how this kind of big change would impact them.”

But advocates of expanded mail-in voting say the U.S. may have little choice, especially with some health experts estimating the crisis could last through the fall. The alternative, they say, is that many Americans might otherwise be unable to vote at all.

“The reality is every level of government is going to have to cope with the fallout if this virus continues to spread,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told POLITICO in an email. “Setting up emergency systems for voting won’t be easy, but the alternative is forcing vulnerable Americans to choose between casting a ballot and protecting their health.”

Wyden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are introducing a bill that would give all voters the ability to cast their ballot by mail under certain conditions, a solution the American Civil Liberties Union has endorsed. The bill would also provide federal money for states to buy the necessary equipment to process the ballots and cover their printing and mailing costs.

Under the legislation, some voters could request and receive their ballots online and return them by either mail or to drop-boxes, in case the Postal Service slows down because of municipal lockdowns and quarantines.

The bill would also expand early in-person voting to lessen long lines at polling places on Election Day.

Mail-In ballots not new

The number of voters who already vote by mail is large and growing annually — about a quarter of voters nationwide cast ballots this way in the 2018 midterms.

Some states, including Colorado, Hawaii, Washington and Wyden’s home state of Oregon, already have all-mail voting; California is moving in this direction with about 65 percent of voters casting ballots this way in 2018. About 30 other states and the District of Columbia offer vote-by-mail to those who request it, while the remaining states limit the option to seniors, those with disabilities or those who cannot otherwise vote in person at precincts. All military and other voters overseas also can cast absentee ballots.

Under the Wyden-Klobuchar bill, ballots sent to voters through the mail would include a prepaid self-sealing return envelope so voters don’t risk contracting or spreading the virus by licking envelopes. Voters who receive their ballot in an email attachment or download it from the internet could mark it online then print it out, or print it out and hand-mark it, before putting it in an envelope they have to sign before mailing.

Receiving ballots online or by email would create security issues: Hackers could block ballots from being distributed, or infect voters’ computers with malware via these attachments or downloads. They could also intercept the ballots with the aim of casting them in place of voters.

“You’ve got large numbers of ballots being distributed at the same time, and [this] may make it easier for someone to intercept and harvest [them],” Blaze said. “These [issues] aren’t insurmountable, but you can’t think about them at the last minute.”

If the majority of voters receive their ballots through the mail instead of via email or online, this could create a logjam. Earley said only a limited number of third-party companies contract with election jurisdictions to print and mail out their ballots; if every jurisdiction in a state moves to universal mail ballots distributed to voters through the Postal Service, this would tax those resources. Some elections have long had problems with voters not receiving their absentee ballots before Election Day, and this would probably be exacerbated in a universal vote-by-mail election. Hence the proposed bill includes the provision to allow distribution via email or online, though not the return of completed ballots that way for security reasons.

Regardless of how the ballots are distributed to voters, all absentee or vote-by-mail ballots take longer to process than ballots cast in person. In most states, one reason is that election officials have to first verify the voter’s signature on the envelope to ensure the person is eligible to vote — this is done by matching the signature on the envelope with a signature the county has on file for that voter. In some cases, the matching is done automatically with software; in other jurisdictions, workers do it manually.

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