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The Battle for Mail-In Ballots

Two articles explore complex battle raging over mail-in balloting.

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Absentee Ballot: Key 2020 States Ramp Up Vetting (LA Progressive)

North Carolina Is Already Rejecting Black Voters’ Mail-In Ballots More Often Than White Voters’ (Five Thirty Eight)

Absentee Ballot: Key 2020 States Ramp Up Vetting
Steven Rosenfeld 
LA Progressive
September 16, 2020

Republican-led legislatures in Michigan and Pennsylvania may soon pass bills to allow local election officials to start processing what is expected to be a historic volume of absentee ballots cast in their states before 2020’s Election Day on November 3.

The legislation could reduce a lengthy vote-counting process in the two presidential battleground states, which some political observers have described as one possible nightmare scenario. But the GOP-authored bills fall short of what Democrats have sought. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has threatened to veto the changes unless they give more time for voters to apply for absentee ballots, more options for voters to return them, and more time for officials to process them.

“The governor plans to veto [the bill] in its current form for a multitude of reasons, including the fact that the bill makes it harder, not easier, for citizens to vote,” Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s press secretary, told the Morning Call newspaper.

After much delay, GOP-led legislatures in Michigan and Pennsylvania may act. But they are offering less than what Democrats seek—and what other GOP-led battleground states do.

Without such legislation, however, vote counting in this election’s two top swing states would likely take several additional days after Election Day. That timetable is based on how long it took the most populous jurisdictions in both states to count absentee ballots during this summer’s primaries. The delays came after more voters cast absentee ballots than voted at polling places due to COVID-19, which was unprecedented and set records in both states.

Since Labor Day, there have been signs that Republican leadership in Michigan and Pennsylvania would move legislation to allow the earlier processing of absentee ballots. The ballots would be counted by scanners on Election Day, while their return envelopes would be vetted beforehand.

In Michigan, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said the body was working to “finesse” a bill that he has kept on hold since May to allow the ballot processing to begin one day before Election Day.

In Pennsylvania, the state’s House passed a bill on September 3 to allow the processing to begin three days before Election Day. The bill, approved by a Senate committee on September 8, bans the wide use of absentee ballot return drop boxes before Election Day. Earlier this year, President Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee sued to limit using drop boxes as statewide election officials had proposed. In late August, a federal court stayed the case, saying the Republicans had no proof their use would prompt illegal voting.

This landscape, where negotiations between the parties may lead to a compromise, has led two former governors from both states to issue a joint statement on September 9 encouraging their legislatures to act to allow the earlier processing of absentee ballots.

“We know we’re unlikely to have results on Election Day, and that is okay,” said Democrat Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Republican Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, writing as national co-chairs of VoteSafe, a bipartisan coalition of election officials and pro-voter groups.

“One adjustment [that] we know based on the primaries will help is lifting the restriction on election officials from beginning to process absentee ballots prior to Election Day,” they said. “While many states go so far as to count ballots prior to Election Day, there is no reason to prevent at least opening envelopes, verifying signatures, and stacking ballots so they’re ready to be counted right away.”

Those administrative steps and others, to verify that the voter’s credentials are correct and ensure that the ballot sent to that specific voter has been returned by them, are the most laborious and time-consuming steps in the behind-the-scenes process of accepting absentee ballots before the actual counting of votes occurs. Taking the hand-marked ballot cards out of their secrecy sleeves and running them through scanners to count votes takes far less time and can be done quickly.

“Processing a mail ballot is not the same as counting it,” said Phil Keisling, the former secretary of state of Oregon and Democrat who oversaw the state’s shift to mail-based voting in 2000. “Processing is doing everything short of counting it.”

Nationally, most states, including other presidential battlegrounds, will start processing returned absentee ballots before Election Day. (See this state-by-state chart by RepresentUs.) For example, Florida will start processing its absentee ballots 22 days before November 3. Arizona will start processing 14 days out. North Carolina, which has already begun to mail out ballots, can process them upon their return. Georgia can also process them upon their return. But New Hampshire, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, cannot, under current state law, start before Election Day on November 3.

In Michigan and Pennsylvania, both must-win presidential swing states, processing absentee ballots has become an increasingly partisan issue in recent months.

“We have long been vocal in our calls for the legislature to change the law around processing times,” said Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.

In Michigan’s Senate, GOP Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has let a bill to start processing the returned ballots one day before Election Day languish, saying that starting to vet the ballots could lead to premature counting. However, in remarks to the Associated Press, he said that there could be some relief for this fall’s election.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that we get enough support to do something before the general election and then evaluate it afterward,” Shirkey told the AP. (The bill was proposed by a GOP state senator, Ruth Johnson, who previously was Michigan’s secretary of state.)

In Pennsylvania, the question of when the processing of ballots could begin was one of several issues in a bill that Republican legislative leaders have been pushing. The GOP-written bill passed by the House and just approved by a Senate committee contains other voting changes that are opposed by the state’s Democrats including Gov. Tom Wolf.

That bill, which passed the Pennsylvania House on September 3, would allow absentee ballot processing to start three days before Election Day polls open. (The Democrats wanted up to three weeks.) The bill also rolls back the absentee ballot application deadline by one week to 15 days before Election Day and bans the wide use of ballot return drop boxes. Instead, it would allow voters to drop off their mail-in or absentee ballots at their polling place on Election Day.

Former governors Jennifer Granholm and Tom Ridge encouraged the lawmakers to empower local election officials to start processing returned absentee ballots before November 3, while downplaying the partisan benefits from processing the returned absentee ballots before Election Day.

“There is a lot at stake in this year’s election, and it makes sense that dramatic changes in [the] process could be met with trepidation,” Granholm and Ridge said. “But these targeted changes are not that; instead, it’s an acknowledgment of the impact COVID-19 has had on all the other aspects of our lives and this limited administrative change is a smart action to prepare our election systems for this new reality.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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North Carolina Is Already Rejecting Black Voters’ Mail-In Ballots More Often Than White Voters’
Kaleigh Rogers
Five Thirty Eight
September 17, 2020

In every election, a small percentage of mail-in ballots get rejected. But this election is likely to have a whole lot of mail-in ballots. And in an election where a record number of voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail, you’re likely to hear a whole lot about ballots that don’t count, especially because voters of color have ballots rejected at a higher rate than white voters.

It’s already happening. In North Carolina, absentee ballots have already been sent back and the state has been updating statistics on those ballots daily. As of September 17, Black voters’ ballots are being rejected at more than four times the rate of white voters, according to the state’s numbers.1 Black voters have mailed in 13,747 ballots, with 642 rejected, or 4.7 percent. White voters have cast 60,954 mail-in ballots, with 681 — or 1.1 percent — rejected. In addition, 434 ballots cast by white voters and 127 ballots cast by Black voters were marked “spoiled,” which can mean literally spoiled or something as simple as a voter informing the election office that the address they had requested a ballot to is wrong. (These are a tiny portion of the votes from one state, so obviously we have a long way to go before we know the full landscape of ballot rejection rates.)

The vast majority of these ballots were rejected because voters made a mistake or failed to fill out the witness information,2 according to state records. A rejected ballot does not necessarily mean the voter is denied his or her vote: North Carolina allows for a process called “vote curing,” where voters are notified that there’s a mistake and given a chance to fix their ballot. But that’s not an option in every state: only 19 states currently allow some form of ballot curing. And even that isn’t foolproof. In Nevada’s statewide primary in June, for example, 12,366 ballots had a missing or mismatched signature, but even after voters were notified to fix it, only 45 percent were successfully cured.

Meanwhile, the racial gap in rejected ballots is not a problem unique to North Carolina.

Black voters and other voters of color frequently have their ballots rejected at a higher rate than white votes (so do younger voters, on average). In Florida’s 2018 midterm elections, ballots cast by Black voters, Hispanic voters and voters from other racial and ethnic minorities were rejected at twice the rate of ballots cast by white voters, according to a report from the Florida ACLU. A team of university researchers found a similar pattern in Georgia that year, where ballots from Black voters were rejected at a higher rate than those from white voters, even when accounting for county-level differences in rejection rates.

Part of this gap could be due to the fact that many Black voters and voters of color casting mail ballots are doing so for the first time, and first time vote-by-mail voters tend to make more mistakes because they’re less familiar with the requirements. That’s true in North Carolina, too. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina, compared historical voter records in the state and found that most voters who had their ballot rejected so far voted in person in 2016.

“We’re seeing already a lack of familiarity with the process, whether it’s signing the ballot or having the witness information completed,” Bitzer said. “There tends to be a greater number from voters who were previously in-person voters. If you look at the numbers [from Sept. 14], the ballots denied due to incomplete witness information, 55 percent of those voters had voted in person in 2016.”

That the barrier to entry is hitting voters of color harder than white voters is indicative of broader, systemic issues with enfranchisement.

“When there’s a barrier, it’s going to fall hardest on the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised in the community, which is very frequently going to be poor voters and voters of color,” said Myrna Pérez, the director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Even if inexperience is largely to blame, that’s still a reason for concern since we’re expecting a record influx in mail-in voters this year. In North Carolina alone, 837,685 of the state’s 7.1 million voters have requested absentee ballots so far.

And that’s part of the problem: In 2016, nationally, 1 percent of mail-in ballots were rejected, according to the Election Assistance Commission’s aggregation of state reports. (This number varies by state. In Oregon, which has had mail-only elections for 20 years, 0.69 percent of mail ballots were rejected. In Georgia, 5.8 percent of mail-in ballots were rejected.) But there were a lot fewer voters casting ballots by mail in 2016. Any vote lost is a problem, but 1 percent of a few million votes can be an election-defining one.

Kaleigh Rogers is a FiveThirtyEight reporter covering science, politics and technology.

FiveThirtyEight  is a website that focuses on opinion poll analysis, politics, economics, and sports blogging. The website, which takes its name from the number of electors in the United States electoral college, was founded on March 7, 2008, as a polling aggregation website with a blog created by analyst Nate Silver. Subscribe to newsletter(s) HERE.