What are the problems with Voting By Mail or Absentee Ballot?

Recent News:

Dead people voting with Absentee Ballots, Say it ain’t so….

Slate Covers Absentee Voting Fraud

Christian Science Monitor’s Multi-part series on the United State’s Election System

New York Times on problems with Voting By Mail

What’s wrong with Voting-By Mail?


I’ve been working on this bullet list for, oh, the many years now I’ve, so it keeps changing. It also isn’t my highest priority to fully edit, what is essentially always evolving. However, by posting this list, it will inevitably make it apparent that some edits are absolutely necessary.  As of November 17th, an upcoming article in the Christian Science Monitor will be driving some traffic this way, so I will be trying to fix broken links and add any new information that I find along the way.

So in that spirit here’s my working list of the problems I have found so far with Voting By Mail, around the country, here in Washington State, down in Oregon, California, and everywhere else. There’s about 17 points on the list so far, so be sure to check below the fold:

    1. Absentee ballots are not “secret ballots.” Voting at the kitchen table in front of your spouse is not voting in secret behind a privacy screen at a polling booth. The secret ballot is not created by a “privacy envelop,” rather the secret ballot relies on the the polling site, and the secrecy provided by a polling booth. Without this fundamental level of protection, the ballot becomes far more susceptible to influence. Vote buying, vote collecting, and vote stuffing schemes become possible in vote by mail systems. Additionally, a signed but unvoted ballot becomes valuable in a system that spends billions on elections every year.
    2. Absentee ballots are still counted by the same privately owned voting machines that have been in the news, including Diebold, ES&S, Sequoia and all the rest. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Vote-By Mail systems do away with privatized computer vote counting. Diebold, or ES & S, Sequoia, and all the other voting machine companies use proprietary software vote counting machines that are just as capable (or incapable) of counting vote-by mail “paper ballots” as they are at counting touchscreen votes. Most vote by mail systems are counted by the very same computer systems that your vote would be counted upon were you to be voting at a polling site. And in the case of some counties that have been switched over to touch screens, there have been reports that the absentee ballots are typically hand entered into the touchscreen system anyway. In 2006, Maryland made national headlines because the state had switched to touch screen machines but absentees were still using paper ballots. The Republican Governor made a fuss about the touch screens that the Democratic Secretary of State, Linda Lamone, was pushing. The rate of absentee ballot requests went through the roof in Maryland because people wanted a paper ballot. However, if their paper ballot system is anything like King County, the paper ballots are eventually fed into the AccuVote system made by Diebold, and then counted by the centralized, GEMS central tabulation software. Or so similar system.  “Hacking Democracy,” the recent HBO documentary, makes it clear that the problem is deeper than machine A versus machine B. Feeding paper ballots into machines and then never auditing the paper ballots is not acceptable. However, it is a common practice with absentee vote-by mail systems.
    3. In many cases, like King County, WA, the Post Office no longer maintains control of the incoming ballots during processing of incoming mail. Instead of the government run Post Office maintaining the chain of custody of absentees, a private company sorts incoming absentee ballots into precincts before giving them back to King County for counting. This breaks down any chain of custody rules that may have been in place at the post office, and privatizes another link in the chain. Not surprisingly, the Post Office never makes an official tally of the number of ballots given to this company. So if they don’t know how many ballots are provided, how would they know how many should be returned? A basic rule in accounting has been foolishly eliminated. Recent reports by Blackboxvoting.org from New Hampshire, indicate that the “chain of custody” procedures in state systems are broken at a fundamental level, around the country. From beginning to end, thewhole system of Absentee Ballots is insecure, as ballots are no longer strictly controlled by the County and citizen poll workers in the individual Precincts.
    4. The cost of running an all mail voting system can actually be greater than a poll based voting system. The supporters of VBM have frequently argued that the system saves money over the cost of poll-based voting systems, and they often deride the current poll system as a “mixed” or “hybrid” system. But upon deeper examination this argument is questionable at best. First off, instead of providing ballots only to voters who “turn-out” to vote, a 100% VBM system prints and mails ballots to every registered voter in the county, precinct, or jurisdiction. Typical elections do not come anywhere near 100% turnout. So in a hypothetical 50% turnout election, 50% of the ballots will have been printed, sorted, stamped and mailed to people that are not voting.Printing absentee ballots is far more expensive than printing poll ballots. Why? Because there’s a host off additional items that are necessary to print and mail a ballot. First you print the ballot, then you have privacy envelops and mailing envelopes that have extra printing, instructions, and a security flap over a signature box. This makes for a fairly expensive piece of mail. And in counties of tens or hundreds of thousands of voters, it adds up fairly quickly. Additionally, there’s a bit more upfront cost, as the ballots must go out weeks ahead of time. So ballot printing is on a rush schedule following a primary vote when compared to the printing cycle necessary for a poll-based voting system. This is a major factor in the now commonly seen headline, “Absentee Ballots mailed late,” or, “Absentee Ballots misprinted.”
    5. The Signature Verification Process is error prone and routinely disenfranchises thousands of voters when it is used. Ballots rejected for having invalid signatures are treated as “Guilty before proven innocent.”In King County, Washington, in 2006, the Seattle Weekly reported that over 7,000 votes were initially removed from the vote totals, until voters were contacted, and given a chance to verify their signature and the validity of his or her ballot. Over 3,000 voters did not respond in time, and those ballots were disenfranchised. That’s just one County in an off year election. Vote-By Mail systems increase the error rate in numerous ways.

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