Pennsylvania’s naked ballot problem, explained

“If you’re voting by mail in Pennsylvania this year, and you want your vote to actually count, you need to remember one crucial thing: the secrecy envelope.

Once you fill out the ballot itself, you must place it inside the provided secrecy envelope, which contains no information about your identity. Then you put the sealed secrecy envelope inside a different postage-paid addressed return envelope, on which you have to sign your name and write your address.

If you forget the secrecy envelope — simply dropping your ballot in the ordinary return envelope — your ballot will be deemed a “naked ballot.” And, according to a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling, election officials will have to throw it out.

The reason for the secrecy envelope, in theory, is to preserve the secret ballot and to prevent potential fraud. That is: once election officials receive the mail-in ballot, they use the outer envelope to verify that the person voting is registered and hasn’t already voted, without being able to see who the vote is for. Only later will the secrecy envelope actually be opened and counted.

But the risk is that if the rule is implemented very strictly, many voters’ non-fraudulent ballots will be thrown out on what’s essentially a technicality, simply because they misunderstood the rules.

So in the wake of the state Supreme Court ruling on the topic last week, Democrats are calling on the Republican-controlled state legislature to change the law to allow naked ballots to be counted. Yet GOP legislators do not seem eager to take any such step. (Both sides suspect discarding naked ballots will disadvantage Democrats more than Republicans, since more Biden supporters have told pollsters they are interested in voting by mail.)

And this could potentially be very consequential. A Philadelphia official recently raised concerns that as many as 100,000 “naked ballots” could be thrown out — and pointed out that Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by just 44,000 votes.”

Oregon already votes by mail. Here’s what it can teach us in 2020.

“Oregon votes only by mail. It has done so for nearly two decades, after voters approved a ballot measure in 1998. Across Oregon, registered voters are sent a ballot, and they can either mail it back or drop it off.”

“Other western states, including Colorado, Washington, and Utah, have since adopted similar systems in the years since. Advocates say it’s as safe as in-person voting, cost-effective, and boosts turnout. They argue it could — or should — be the future of how America votes.”

“The number of Americans voting by mail has steadily increased in the past decade. In 2018, about 25 percent of all voters cast their ballots by mail. That number could about double in 2020. Beyond the states that already do it, this year, states like California, where counties already had many voters casting ballots by mail, are now also sending ballots to registered voters. Others, like Vermont and New Jersey, are mailing out ballots for the first time.”

“Republicans, not Democrats, were the early champions of vote by mail in Oregon.”

“Oregon’s vote-by-mail system has safeguards in place. Registered voters have their signatures on file — either by mailing a voter registration card to election officials, or by opting-in to registration directly when they get or renew a license. When it comes time to vote, election officials mail ballots to registered voters, which they typically receive about two to three weeks before an election.
The ballot contains a few things: the ballot itself; a “secrecy envelope” that the ballot goes inside once it’s marked; and a return envelope, which now even has the postage prepaid so voters don’t have to cover the cost of return postage.

Once you make your choices on your ballot, you slip it into the secrecy envelope, seal it up, slip that into the return envelope and seal it. Then you read and sign the statement printed on the back of the envelope, which basically says that you verify that you are you. Once that’s done, you either send it back by mail or put it into a secure drop box — either method requires that election officials receive the ballot before 8 pm on Election Day. Oregonians can also track their ballot to make sure it’s been received and counted.

Only about one-third of Oregonians actually send their ballots back through the postal service, instead placing them in secure drop boxes at places like libraries or movie theaters or even McDonald’s.”

“Each ballot has a unique bar code specific to each voter, so once the ballot is received, election officials can verify the signature on that ballot envelope to make sure it matches the one on that voter’s registration. There are often multiple reviews to guarantee it’s a match — Druckenmiller said if someone questions the signature, two other people will review it; if they’re not sure, he makes the final call. If the signature doesn’t match, voters are notified and given the opportunity to remedy that, in what’s known as a “cure” process.

But once a signature is verified, the ballot is separated from the return envelope so the ballot can be tabulated. Along the way, there are layers of auditing to make sure the number of ballots received matches the tabulated numbers for the vote count. Many see mail-in ballots as more secure because there’s a paper trail, and so cant be hacked.

Oregon election officials get updates from public records, like change-of-address notifications and death records, to check against the voter registration databases. “We use the Postal Service. When most of us move, we change our address, right?” Paul Gronke, a professor of political science and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, told me. “And so actually, vote by mail works really well and has very little deadwood. The rolls are very clean.””

“According to the Oregon secretary of state’s office, in 2016, officials referred 54 cases of possible voter fraud to law enforcement. Of those, 22 people — representing just 0.0001 percent of all ballots cast that year — were found guilty of having voted in two states.

Election officials in Oregon I spoke to told me that vote by mail is also much more efficient to oversee than polling-place elections, where sites are spread out across the county.”

“An April 2020 YouGov poll found that 77 percent of adults in Oregon backed vote by mail, compared to 11 percent who opposed it. Indeed, voters in states that have vote by mail — whether in bluer states like Washington or redder states like Utah — all tend to overwhelmingly like it.

It’s convenient. Voters don’t have to take off from work, or spend time waiting in line at a polling place.”

Obama accuses Trump of trying to “kneecap” the Postal Service

““What we’ve seen, in a way that is unique to modern political history, is a president who is explicit in trying to discourage people from voting,” Obama said on Cadence13’s Campaign HQ podcast in a discussion with his former campaign manager David Plouffe. “What we’ve never seen before is a president say, ‘I’m going to try to actively kneecap the Postal Service to [discourage] voting and I will be explicit about the reason I’m doing it.’”

“That’s sort of unheard of, right?” he added. “And we also have not had an election in the midst of a pandemic that is still deadly and killing a lot of people, and we still don’t know the long-term side effects of contracting the illness.”

Obama’s comments were a response to Trump’s admission on Thursday that he opposes providing additional funding for the Postal Service — which is under huge financial strain due to the coronavirus pandemic and unprepared for a massive influx of mail-in ballots — because he doesn’t want everyone to be able to vote by mail.”

The White House says USPS isn’t removing mail-sorting machines. Postal workers say it is.

“after being updated by a producer, Tapper fulfilled Meadows’s request: He cited Chris Bentley, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 297, which covers Kansas and part of Missouri, who told CNN that postal management “has already taken out four machines in Kansas City, two machines in Springfield, Missouri, and one machine in Wichita, Kansas, that is earlier this year — under this new postmaster general.”

Meadows denied the claim that it was the result of the current postmaster general and said that it was an “already scheduled reallocation” and that there isn’t “a new initiative by this postmaster general.”

But reports from NBC News, CNN, and the Washington Post indicate that 671 machines are being taken offline under a new policy. NBC reports that, according to internal Postal Service documents it obtained, the new postmaster general appointed by Trump in May, Louis DeJoy, is responsible for the decommissioning initiative. And postal workers say the process of taking machines out of service under this initiative began in June.”

“Experts on voting behavior have said that before the pandemic, an estimated 25 percent of voters would’ve been expected to cast their ballots by mail; they now estimate that 60 percent or more will attempt to vote by mail because the pandemic is discouraging in-person voting.

If Meadows is claiming that a new machine removal initiative doesn’t exist when in fact it does, then his promise that new ones won’t be taken offline is, at best, questionable. How can the White House reverse a policy it claims doesn’t exist?”

“Meadows said that Trump is open to injecting emergency funds into the Postal Service if he can come to a fair deal with Democrats. But that contradicts Trump’s admission on Thursday that he opposes providing additional funding for the Postal Service because he doesn’t want everyone to be able to vote by mail.”

“Trump has persistently attempted to delegitimize the reliability of mail-in voting, describing it as acutely vulnerable to fraud — without presenting evidence and despite the consensus among voting rights experts that it’s secure when funded properly.”

How Trump’s mail voting sabotage could result in an election night nightmare

“Imagine this election night scenario: With a decisive number of mail ballots yet to be tallied, President Donald Trump enjoys a narrow lead over Joe Biden. But before all the votes can be counted — a process that could take days — Trump declares victory, citing purported irregularities with mail-in votes.

You can even picture Trump insisting that the preliminary election night tally must stand as final with a tweet that reads similarly to this one he posted in November 2018, when Florida’s US Senate and gubernatorial elections were still undecided: “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!””

““You know, you could have a case where this election won’t be decided on the evening of November 3,” Trump told Axios’s Jonathan Swan in an interview that aired on HBO last week. Asked why that’s a problem — after all, there’s no rule that elections have to be decided on election night — Trump said, “lots of things will happen during that period of time; especially when you have tight margins, lots of things going to happen.”

Then, during a media availability on Sunday, Trump claimed that Democrats are using mail ballots to try and “steal an election.””

“”None of the five states that hold their elections primarily by mail has had any voter fraud scandals since making that change. As the New York Times editorial board notes, “states that use vote-by-mail have encountered essentially zero fraud: Oregon, the pioneer in this area, has sent out more than 100 million mail-in ballots since 2000, and has documented only about a dozen cases of proven fraud.” Rounded to the seventh decimal point, that’s 0.0000001 percent of all votes cast. An exhaustive investigative journalism analysis of all known voter fraud cases identified only 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud from 2000 to 2012. As election law professor Richard L. Hasen notes, during that period “literally billions of votes were cast.” While mail ballots are more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting, it is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud.””

“Trump has repeatedly cited episodes of attempted fraud on behalf of Republican Mark Harris in a North Carolina congressional race in 2018 and more recently in New Jersey as evidence there’s good reason to be worried. But as Berman explained to me, there’s an irony in Trump citing instances where attempted fraud was detected and ultimately unsuccessful.”

“According to Emerson College polling conducted late last month, a whopping 76 percent of voters who plan to vote by mail plan to vote for Joe Biden. By contrast, 65 percent of those planning to vote in person say they’ll vote for Trump.”

“A normal politician’s response to those numbers might be to work harder to appeal to voters who plan to vote by mail. Trump, however, is no normal politician.”

Trump Urges Floridians To Vote by Mail While Suing Over Remote Voting in Nevada

“After months of casting suspicion on the whole concept of mail-in voting, the president is suddenly behind it… for states where he has a stronghold. “In Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!” Donald Trump tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True,” the president opined on social media.

Meanwhile, his campaign is suing to stop the state of Nevada from expanding its mail-in voting protocol.”

“Nevada went for Clinton in 2016, and Florida went for Trump, so that might be one clue. The president has also criticized the prospect of expanding mail-in ballot access in California, a reliably blue state.”

A Texas Supreme Court decision could disenfranchise millions during the pandemic

“The overwhelming majority of states allow any lawful voter to obtain an absentee ballot without having to justify their request. Texas, by contrast, allows only a minority of voters to obtain one. One provision of state law allows elderly voters to vote absentee. Another permits absentee ballots if a voter will be away from their home county on Election Day. A third provides that “a qualified voter is eligible for early voting by mail if the voter has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on Election Day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health” — a requirement that, according to the state Supreme Court’s decision in Texas, applies only to people who are ill or disabled.

Civil rights groups and the state Democratic Party argued that this third provision should be broadly interpreted to allow anyone who could become infected with the coronavirus to vote absentee. The words “physical condition,” they argued, includes the physical condition of being susceptible to a deadly pandemic disease. In other words, during a pandemic that requires social distancing to control the spread of said disease, nearly everyone has a “physical condition” that should enable them to vote absentee.

In recent elections, older voters have tended to prefer Republican candidates over Democrats. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, objected to the broader interpretation of the law. At one point, his office even threatened to bring criminal prosecutions against any organization that encourages younger voters to request an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court’s nine Republican justices ultimately sided with Paxton, although two of the nine did so for different reasons.

The court’s decision in Texas will not be the last word on whether younger Texans may vote absentee in November. In a separate Texas lawsuit, a federal trial judge ruled last week that the state cannot discriminate against younger voters. Among other things, he determined that the Texas law violates the 26th Amendment, which permits all otherwise eligible voters over the age of 18 to cast a ballot.

But the federal decision has been appealed to the notoriously conservative US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and may ultimately be heard by a US Supreme Court that is frequently hostile to claims of voter suppression. So it is far from clear that younger Texans will be allowed to vote absentee.”

Why Does Trump Want To Stop People From Voting by Mail?

“Since Trump himself voted by absentee ballot in Florida’s presidential primary two months ago, you might wonder why he wants to deny Michigan and Nevada voters the same opportunity, especially at a time when COVID-19 fears might make people reluctant to gather at polling places. And why those states specifically, when five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) conduct elections almost entirely by mail, while 28 others require no special justification for absentee voting? You also might wonder why Trump views voting by mail in those states as illegal, cheating, or a form of voter fraud. In any case, why does Trump think he has the authority to punish states for election procedures he does not like by withholding federal funding?”

“Are Democrats more likely to vote by mail than Republicans? Trump certainly seems to think so. In a March 30 interview on Fox News, he criticized COVID-19 legislation proposed by House Democrats that would have required states to allow “no excuse” absentee ballot applications and, if an election is held during a national emergency, to send every registered voter a mail-in ballot. “The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said. “They had things—levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Notwithstanding that dire prediction, the evidence concerning the partisan impact of voting by mail is mixed. Pantheon Analytics found that switching to mail-in ballots in Colorado gave a slight advantage to Republican candidates in 2014, while that change in Utah gave a slight advantage to Democrats in 2016. In both cases, voting by mail increased participation in the election, as you would expect. But contrary to the fears often expressed by Republican politicians, that turnout boost does not seem to consistently favor Democrats. In 2016, for instance, 15.5 percent of registered Republicans who voted in North Carolina used mail-in ballots, compared to 8.8 percent of registered Democrats.”

“What about Trump’s claim that absentee ballots enable voter fraud? The issue is a personal obsession for Trump, who implausibly blamed massive fraud for costing him his rightful popular-vote victory in 2016. Even if we charitably treat that concern as distinct from the unsubstantiated fear that mail-in ballots favor Democrats, there is little evidence that voter fraud is a substantial problem, regardless of how people cast their ballots.

While it’s true that voting by mail is especially vulnerable to fraud, such incidents are still highly unusual. “Election fraud in the United States is very rare, but the most common type of such fraud in the United States involves absentee ballots,” Rick Hasen, an election expert at the University of California, Irvine, law school, told the Times in April. “Sensible rules for handling of absentee ballots make sense, not only to minimize the risk of ballot tampering but to ensure that voters cast valid ballots.” The five states where voting by mail is the norm “report very little fraud,” the Times notes.”