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Voters, cast ballots with confidence

| August 20, 2020 1:00 AM

It feels odd to examine the reliability of U.S. Mail, something most people have taken for granted for centuries. In 2019, the independent U.S. Postal Service (funded exclusively by its own income) delivered more than 143 billion pieces of mail to more than 160 million addresses, including 46 million rural ones, where in some cases USPS is not simply the cheapest, but the only option.

That includes absentee (where voters request a mailed ballot) and, in some states, mail-in (where a ballot is automatically sent to all registered voters) ballots. For both, the USPS has long-established election mail protocols and priority.

Is mail a reliable way to vote?

Reliability boils down to rejection rates, to making sure every vote is counted.

According to the independent, bipartisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 23.7 percent of votes cast in the 2016 general election were by mail, including absentee. Of those, approximately 1 percent weren’t counted. The reasons included “the signature on the ballot not matching the signature on the state’s records,” “the ballot not having a signature,” a “problem with return envelope,” or “missing the deadline.”

To compare, the number of in-person ballots rejected in 2016 was two-thirds that of mail-in. According to a report by MIT Election Data and Science Lab, total rejection rates of returned absentee and mail-in ballots in the 2020 primaries ranged from less than 1 percent to under 2 percent in five “battleground” states.

Such data suggests typically 99 percent votes by mail are counted. The anticipated higher mail volume in November could create either an unprecedented challenge, or a transforming opportunity to change how America (and likely, the world) votes.

What about fraud? Fraud concerns are understandable, yet no system is foolproof. Research suggests that despite expressed fears, even when it has occurred, ultimately neither party has gained a net advantage. According to data compiled by the Brookings Institution, the Brennan Center for Justice, as well as the U.S. Elections Project (based at the University of Florida), there is “no evidence” that mail ballots increase electoral fraud — at least in terms of results.

Anti-fraud protections built into the process include requiring absentee ballot requests to be from registered voters, mailing ballots to the official address listed on voter registration rolls (so be sure to keep yours updated), requiring voter signatures on the external envelope and matching signatures with the registration, and making sure the ballot came from the address of an actual voter. If a ballot looks questionable, some states use a signature-matching technique to verify the signature of the voter.

Military personnel stationed abroad who have voted by absentee ballot since the Civil War have made “virtually no claims” of election fraud.

Where voter fraud has been documented tends to be localized, and connected to campaigns, such as one example by a campaign worker in 2018 in North Carolina. In that case a federal judge invalidated the election and a special election was held.

The Heritage Foundation, a partisan think tank, has been studying voter fraud for years. Its most recent report cites 1,285 instances of prosecuted voter fraud since 1972. The total number of federal votes since 1972 exceeds 3 billion, with many more state and local elections. The 1,285 includes fraud which did not involve voting by mail, such as fraudulent voter registration and petitions. Counting just the mailed ballot cases of fraud, the number was 491.

States vary. Does the relatively small sample mean there’s nothing to worry about? That depends in part on the state.

Some states such as Utah and Hawaii have already been doing vote-by-mail without a problem. At least one state’s attempt collapsed by rushing it. When Wisconsin tried a new vote-by-mail primary in April during lockdown, it became the poster child for how not to. Some voters never received a ballot, others got two or an empty envelope.

Idaho and 24 other states have a no-excuse needed absentee system: Anyone can request a ballot by mail, and return it either by mail or drop it off at the county elections office (a good option if you’re concerned about mailing). Nine states are mailing everyone an absentee ballot request. Seven states are sticking with in-person elections, absent a non-COVID-19 excuse not to. Nine states and D.C. are doing universal mailed ballots for the November election.

Older folks favor mail. It will be interesting to see if voter turnout overall is higher than prior national elections. According to the MIT Election Lab data, the group most likely to vote by mail has been 60 and over, but this election may change that, as more Americans are likely to at least get an absentee ballot by mail, if not return it that way.

In Idaho, not much has changed and we can have it both ways, as usual. There’s plenty of time to get an absentee ballot request for the November election to the elections department by the Oct. 23 deadline if you want one. A special session next week might establish some kind of in-person polling places as well.

Just don’t skip it, please. In addition to president, we will be voting for state and federal legislators, county commissioners, judges, NIC trustees, county sheriff and prosecutor, and soil and water conservation district supervisors. All, one way or another, affect our lives.

And there’s still the option of requesting a mailed absentee ballot now, and dropping it off at the elections office (1808 N. Third St. in Coeur d’Alene) before Nov. 1.

Need to register? Get an absentee ballot? See a list of candidates or your polling place? Go to Kcgov.us/935/Current-Election-Information. For information in other counties see Idahovotes.gov/county-clerks.

“Every election is determined by the people who show up.” — Larry J. Sabato

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Sholeh Patrick, JD, is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who appreciates the ability to vote absentee.