It’s becoming increasingly clear that we should conduct the November election in as normal a manner as possible. We should have as many of our regular polling places open as we can – and we should resist the ongoing push to have an all-mail election or a massive increase in absentee balloting with an elimination of the protective protocols in place for such ballots.
A couple of recent personal experiences illustrate why. Last weekend, my wife and I went to both the grocery store and our pharmacy. These retail establishments had all of the safety protocols in place that health experts have recommended, from line spacing to a mask-wearing requirement to sanitation stations. If we can go shopping in person, why can’t we vote in person?
The answer, of course, is that we can, despite the push by some to scare voters away from the polls. We know we can because multiple states and countries have held elections with in-person voting in this and prior pandemics – and have done so successfully, using all the health safety protocols recommended by experts.
Liberia did it in 2014 in the midst of the Ebola pandemic sweeping West Africa. South Korea did it on April 15 of this year when 29 million South Koreans voted in their national elections; reports indicate there was no COVID-19 spike after that election. Wisconsin did it on April 7 when several hundred thousand state residents voted in person in their regular polling places.
The Wisconsin Election Commission implemented very strict safety procedures, stricter than what my wife and I experienced when we went shopping. That included social distancing in voter lines; hand washing/sanitizing stations for all voters when entering and leaving polling places, as well as regular sanitizing of all tables, door handles, voting booths, voting equipment, and everything else being touched or handled in the polling place. They even had curbside voting for those who didn’t want to come into the polling place.
A report released by analysts from the World Health Organization and Stanford University after the Wisconsin election found “no detectable surge” in COVID-19 “transmissions due to the April 7” election. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency leading our response to COVID-19, issued a report on July 31 looking at the experience of Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin. It concluded that there was no “increase in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths” from COVID-19 due to the election. In fact, there were fewer cases reported during the “incubation period” after the election – April 9-21 – than in the 13 days preceding the election.
The CDC has issued guidelines for conducting in-person voting safety, which include everything from social distancing in voter lines to cleaning and disinfecting of equipment and voting materials used in a polling location. Rather than telling voters to vote by mail as so many jurisdictions are mistakenly doing and decreasing the number of polling locations, the CDC recommends “increasing the number of polling locations” in order to “improve the ability to social distance.”
Will this impose extra costs over what state legislatures already appropriated for the administration of the 2020 elections? Yes, but that is why Congress approved over $400 million in the CARE Act that has already been distributed to the states by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to pay for those extra costs.
Another weekend experience underscores the superiority of in-person voting: On Saturday, we once again received mail at our home addressed to the folks we bought our house from – 18 years ago. And on Sunday, our neighbor down the street knocked on our front door and gave us a letter that had been mistakenly delivered to his house.
That is not an isolated problem. The EAC reported that well over two million absentee or mail ballots sent to voters by election officials were returned as “undeliverable” by the U.S. Postal Service in the last four federal elections. The fate of more than 28 million ballots is labelled as “unknown,” defined by the EAC as those that “were not returned by voter, spoiled, returned as undeliverable, or otherwise unable to be tracked.”
Remember the Wisconsin primary where many residents voted in person? Unfortunately, many others tried to vote with absentee ballots. The Inspector General of the USPS recently reported that thousands of those ballots were never delivered to Wisconsin voters, while others were never postmarked. This led to them being rejected by election officials, since they had no way of knowing if the ballots were completed and mailed prior to Election Day.
This has been a recurring problem in almost all of the primaries held since March where election officials made the mistake of encouraging voters to use absentee ballots to vote. The District of Columbia had a similar problem when it held its primary, leading to very long lines on Election Day at the greatly reduced number of open polling places. Why? Because voters who had not gotten the absentee ballots they had requested showed up in person to vote.
The rejection rate for mailed ballots is much higher than ballots cast in person. There is no election official in voters’ home to answer questions or remedy any potential problems, unlike at a polling place. During the recent primary elections in New York, which also had a huge increase in absentee ballots, large numbers of ballots were rejected for a whole host of reasons, something that happens every election:
- voters forgetting to sign the ballots;
- signatures on the absentee ballots not matching voters’ registration signatures;
- voters not properly supplying all of the registration information required;
- USPS forgetting to postmark the returning ballot envelopes from voters; and
- ballots not being delivered in time to be counted.
More than half a million absentee ballots were ultimately rejected in recent primaries, including over 80,000 – one out of every five ballots — in New York City alone – an enormous and unacceptable disenfranchisement rate.
In 2012, before the current progressive love affair with absentee ballots and all-mail elections, The New York Times actually did a highly critical report on absentee ballots. They concluded that “votes cast 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.” In fact, the Times said, the rejection rate for absentee ballots by election officials is “double the rate for in-person voting.” As the then-election supervisor of Tallahassee, Ion Sancho, said, “the more people you force to vote by mail, the more invalid ballots you generate.”
There has been a very loud and contentious debate recently about the USPS and whether it needs more funding. But the postal service has had problems for years, problems that won’t be solved by using the standard Washington solution of throwing more money at them. The USPS is badly managed, badly organized, and has numerous employee unions that have resisted any and all reforms intended to try to bring it into the 21st Century and turn it into the type of efficient, effective organization like other delivery services such as FedEx and UPS.
The USPS’s own standards are simply inadequate for a mail-in election. In November, the USPS Inspector General released a report on its delivery of “election mail” in the 2018 congressional elections. Its goal was the timely delivery of absentee ballots 96% of the time – not 100%. That means that even if the USPS met its goal, 4% of voters would potentially not have their absentee ballots delivered in time to be counted. The IG said that USPS achieved its goal nationwide, on average, 95.6% of the time.
But the IG report also listed the worst mail processing facilities in the country, located in California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin, which only managed to deliver this very important mail on-time 84.2% of the time. Whether it is 4% or 16%, that translates to literally millions of absentee and mail-in ballots that may not be delivered in time.
This problem has not been resolved over the two intervening years. To test this issue, the CBS Morning News recently set up a P.O. box at a Philadelphia post office to represent a local election office. They then mailed 100 envelopes from various locations in the city to the box that were the same size and class of mail as absentee ballot envelopes.
A week later, most of the envelopes had apparently not arrived, although after explaining what was going on to a manager, the “votes were found.” There were two pieces of mail meant for someone else in the box, including a birthday card. But three of the 100 envelopes were missing, so effectively 3% of mock voters were disenfranchised. Out of a second batch of 100 envelopes mailed, 21% had not arrived after a week.
Compare that to walking into your polling booth, filling out your ballot, and depositing it in a ballot box – in other words, not being dependent on the vagaries of the postal service to hopefully deliver you ballot in time and to the correct address both ways.
Of course, another big problem with absentee ballots is that they are completed outside the supervision of election officials and outside the observation of poll watchers, destroying the transparency that is the hallmark of our election process. They are the easiest ballots to steal, forge and alter. Moreover, because state laws that ban electioneering in polling places don’t apply to voters’ homes, voters become vulnerable to pressure, intimidation and coercion from individuals who have a stake in the outcome of the election.
There are numerous cases involving absentee ballot fraud outlined in The Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database, which contains a sampling of proven fraud cases from around the country. Such problems were encountered in Paterson, New Jersey, after it made the mistake of switching to an all-mail process for its recent municipal election, which also had a very high rejection rate. Four locals have already been criminally charged in an absentee-ballot fraud scheme, and a new election has been ordered.
Paterson is not unique. The New York Post recently published a disturbing story about a longtime Democratic political operative who admits that he has committed fraud through phony, forged and altered absentee ballots for decades in New Jersey in legislative, mayoral and congressional races. He describes how simple it is and says he has “led teams of fraudsters and mentored at least 20 operatives in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.” Changing the outcome of an election is particularly easy to do in close elections – and we have close elections all the time in this country.
Unfortunately, the targets of such schemes are often those most vulnerable. As a court outlined in a 2003 mayoral primary election in East Chicago that involved, according to the court, “pervasive” and “voluminous, widespread” absentee ballot fraud, those targeted “were first-time voters or otherwise less informed or lacking in knowledge of the voting process, the infirm, the poor and those with limited skills in the English language.”
Despite these vulnerabilities, lawsuits have been filed all over the country by liberal advocacy groups and the Democratic Party to make it even easier to commit absentee ballot fraud. This includes getting rid of voter ID and witness signature or notarization requirements; overriding state deadlines for absentee ballots to be either returned or postmarked by Election Day; voiding state laws banning vote harvesting by third parties; and requiring that voters be sent postage – prepaid envelopes for the return of completed absentee ballots. This last requirement means the USPS may not postmark the envelopes again, making it impossible for election officials to know whether a ballot was completed and mailed before or after the election.
Election officials also are not equipped to handle large numbers of absentee ballots. New York took six weeks to count the votes cast in its June 23 primary after there was an enormous increase in the number of ballots cast by mail. The outcome is still being contested through litigation over the high rejection rate of those ballots. If similar delays occur after the November general election in New York and numerous other states, it could be weeks before we know who won the presidential election if the race is close. It could be even longer if litigation contesting the outcome is filed in not just one state, as happened in 2000 in Florida, but in numerous states.
We have all the makings for a potential nightmare in November. Here’s hoping that doesn’t come to pass. The best way to do that is to have as normal an election as possible without making all of these major, last-minute changes in the voting and election process.
Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow and Manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative at The Heritage Foundation and a former election official. He is the coauthor of “Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk” and “Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department.”
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