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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.