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What to Do About Vote by Mail

The New York Times highlighted problems with voting by mail. Here are some solutions.

October 8, 2012

Yester­day’s New York Times featured a front page, above the fold story head­lined “Error and Fraud at Issue as Absentee Voting Rises.” This is an issue the Bren­nan Center has been follow­ing closely for years. The article by Adam Liptak raises many good points, includ­ing the fact that “votes by mail are less likely to be coun­ted, more likely to be comprom­ised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth.” The whole thing is defin­itely worth a read for elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion junkies, and anyone concerned about what kind of mess the coun­try might face in the event of an extremely close pres­id­en­tial contest.

As Liptak notes, the number of people voting by mail has nearly doubled in the last few years, and could easily exceed 1 in 5 votes cast this Novem­ber. While there are many reas­ons to be concerned about voting by mail, the truth is we are likely to see more and more of it in the coming years. 

So what can be done to improve this system, if it is here to stay? One area of focus at the Bren­nan Center has been to reduce the kind of tech­nical errors that have led hundreds of thou­sands of legit­im­ate votes to go uncoun­ted. In a report released this summer, the Bren­nan Center estim­ated that in just the 2008 and 2010 general elec­tions, as many as 350,000 absentee ballots were discarded for tech­nical errors like fail­ing to prop­erly complete the absentee ballot envel­ope. There are at least three things that states and counties can do to make sure more votes are coun­ted:

  • First, work with usab­il­ity, design, and plain language experts to improve the design of the envel­ope to elim­in­ate confus­ing design and language that can lead voters to make tech­nical mistakes that inval­id­ate other­wise legit­im­ate votes. As noted in Better Design, Better Ballots, Minnesota did this in 2009 and 2011, and most likely saved thou­sands of votes with improved design. 
  • Second, improve the design of the ballots them­selves. One great source of sugges­tions for how to do that is here. As Profess­ors Michael Alvarez, Charles Stew­art and Dustin Beck­ett of the Caltech-MIT Voting Tech­no­logy Project have noted, voters who vote by mail do not have the bene­fit of polling place machines, which can “tell” voters if they chose too many candid­ates or skipped a contest and give them an oppor­tun­ity to correct mismarked ballots. Nor can such voters easily call on poll work­ers or elec­tion offi­cials for help if they have a prob­lem. The result seems to be that even voters who prop­erly fill out the ballot envel­ope are far more likely to lose their votes because of mistakes on the ballots them­selves.
  • Finally, adopt proced­ures to allow elec­tion offi­cials to contact voters when their absentee ballot envel­opes are tech­nic­ally insuf­fi­cient so they can correct them and ensure their votes will be coun­ted.  Minnesota did that in 2009. Some, includ­ing then Secret­ary of State Jennifer Brun­ner, tried to get this same fix in place in Ohio in 2009. Unfor­tu­nately, they ulti­mately failed

These solu­tions won’t solve all of the prob­lems asso­ci­ated with vote by mail, but they will ameli­or­ate one of the biggest down­sides to the system — namely the rejec­tion of other­wise legit­im­ate votes.