United States citizens are expected to vote on November 3 like never before, with the number of Americans casting their ballots by mail expected to surge amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While President Donald Trump has largely sought to keep attention on unfounded claims that voting by mail leads to higher rates of fraud, voting advocates have instead highlighted an array of changes to how states process votes by mail that they say could lead to fewer ballots being rejected and shorter wait times for states to reach their final counts after election day.
While analysts say there is no evidence to indicate that mail voting leads to higher rates of fraud, voting by mail does have higher rates of ballot rejection than other forms of voting.
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With more than half of the electorate expected to cast ballots by mail, attention has turned to the patchwork of state policies and laws that determine the parameters for such voting, with some states quickly moving to adopt what are considered best practices for this year’s unusual election.
“It’s a completely unprecedented scale of election reform,” Charlotte Hill, a policy researcher and PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley, told Al Jazeera. “We’ve never seen this many election laws change so quickly and so substantially in modern American history.”
Those changes are perhaps most consequential in so-called battleground states, which saw razor-thin margins of victory in 2016 and are projected to see the same in 2020.
A recent analysis of mail voting in battleground states by the Associated Press news agency found that if rejection rates for mail ballots remain the same as they did during 2020 primaries, as many as three times more voters could be disenfranchised in key states than in 2016. The AP analysed data from Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.
In 2016, Trump won the state of Michigan by just 0.3 percentage points, or 10,704 votes. In the primary in August, which saw a turnout of about 2.5 million residents, 10,694 mail votes were rejected, according to the office of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
“The majority of disenfranchised voters in last week’s statewide primary could easily have had their votes counted with small changes in law,” Benson’s office said in a news release after the primary.
Three laws introduced in Michigan’s Republican-controlled state house and senate broadly encapsulate reforms sought by voting rights advocates.
One calls for ballots postmarked by election day to still be counted if they are received after election day (in the case of this bill, two days after, although some reformists have sought longer timeframes). Another calls for strengthening requirements for election officials to contact voters if there are problems with their ballots to give them a chance to correct them. The third calls for election officials to start processing ballots before election day.
“With turnout and absentee ballot numbers expected to double or even triple in November, we could be looking at tens of thousands of Michigan citizens disenfranchised if the legislature again fails to act,” Benson said in a statement after the primary.
Of the rejected ballots in the state, the vast majority, 6,405, were thrown out because they arrived after election day, according to Benson’s office.
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Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and Florida currently only accept mail ballots that arrive by the end of election day, although legislative action and lawsuits in most of the states are seeking to change that. North Carolina counts ballots that arrive within three days after election day, as long as they are postmarked on election day.
In Pennsylvania, if voter turnout is the same as 2016 and the ballot rejection rate remains the same from this year’s primary, nearly 43,000 voters in the state could be disenfranchised this fall, according to an Associated Press analysis. Trump won the state by 44,200 votes in 2016.
“In many states, the absolute latest that you could [send] your ballot in may not actually result in your ballot being counted if it gets delayed by the post office,” policy researcher Hill said, referring to an ongoing dispute between state election officials and US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
In August, the United States Postal Service (USPS) sent letters to a majority of US states warning, amid newly instated cost-saving measures, that it may not be able to deliver all ballots in time given states’ deadlines for requesting a mail ballot and their final voting deadline.
DeJoy has since paused those measures and assured legislators that the USPS can be trusted to carry out the election, amid a swarm of state lawsuits against the agency.
Arguments over whether ballot drop-off boxes, which allow a mail voter to deliver the ballot while staying socially distanced, should be provided in all districts have also defined legislative and legal battles preceding November 3.
Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Florida currently do not uniformly mandate drop boxes in all districts.
The other major reason for ballot rejection, according to researchers, is problems with signatures. This usually relates to forgetting to sign the envelope in which a ballot is sealed – and, to a lesser extent, signatures not matching those on record.
Currently, at least two closely watched battleground states, North Carolina and Wisconsin, still require a witness to sign a mail ballot, creating what Hill describes as an “onerous additional requirement” that poses particular difficulties during the coronavirus pandemic.
“With the special circumstances that arise from COVID, at least having an emergency provision that says that for this election year, those requirements will be waived, would go a long way,” she added.
In Wisconsin, about 23,000 ballots were rejected during the 2020 primary, according to investigative news site APM Reports. Trump won the state by 22,748 votes in 2016.
About 13,834 were rejected due to problems with the signatures of voters or witnesses, who are both required to sign the ballot envelope, according to APM Report’s analysis. Witnesses are also required to put their address on the envelopes.
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Lawsuits in both Wisconsin and North Carolina have sought to do away with the requirement.
Lawsuits across the country have also sought to create more reliable processes for election officials to notify – and allow adequate time for – a voter to fix a mail ballot.
While Florida and Arizona have relatively robust ballot “cure” processes, advocates have called for procedures to be strengthened in Wisconsin and Michigan, with the latter’s law saying a voter should be contacted and given the opportunity to correct if time allows, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Meanwhile, in August, a federal judge ruled that residents in North Carolina must be given an opportunity to fix their ballots, while rejecting other changes sought by Democracy North Carolina and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina. A subsequent lawsuit by the North Carolina Democratic Party says the procedure for fixing ballots does not go far enough.
Advocates in Pennsylvania are currently seeking provisions that uniformly require election officials to contact voters and give them adequate opportunity to fix a signature-related issue with a ballot.
Dovetailing into concerns over giving voters the opportunity, and the time, to correct their ballots are concerns over long waits for final results as states grapple with the high rates of mail votes.
Several states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, do not permit mail ballot processing until election day.
Meanwhile, Florida allows processing and counting to begin 22 days before November 3, and North Carolina may begin processing on the fifth Tuesday before election day, and can begin counting two weeks before. Arizona, meanwhile, can begin processing and tallying 14 days before election day.
During its June primary, Pennsylvania saw delays amid a 17-fold increase in mail voting when compared to the 2016 general election. In June, about half of the three million voters cast their ballots by mail.
Observers fear such delays could be exacerbated in the general election, leading to a potentially fraught post-poll period, especially as some accuse Trump of already laying the groundwork to contest the results.
“Nobody in Pennsylvania wants this to be Florida in 2000. And that includes Republicans and Democrats, Independents, everybody,” Jon Delano, the political editor at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania television station KDKA and an adjunct professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, told Al Jazeera, referring to the 2000 general election, in which Florida’s problems with polling delayed final election results for more than a month.
The crunch is expected to be especially felt in states that are projected to have a huge surge in mail voting, despite having historically low mail voters in past elections.
In the 2018 congressional elections in North Carolina, just under three percent of voters successfully cast ballots by mail, according to the US Election Assistance Commission. Wisconsin had just over five percent successfully cast mail votes in that election. Pennsylvania had just under four percent.
“It’s fair to say that the most critical election of our lifetime is occurring in the middle of a pandemic, when many states like Pennsylvania are implementing brand new systems of voting,” Delano said.
“You have a cascade of circumstances that lead to great uncertainty as to how this process will work,” he added. “It could be that everything works very smoothly, but with an anticipated six to seven million voters [in Pennsylvania], there’s always plenty of room for glitches”.
Emily Sumlin contributed research.