It’s going to be a record year for voting by mail in the U.S. election and that has raised security concerns about each step of the process.
But election officials say they have systems in place to make voting by mail a success even as health concerns about voting during the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing states to expand their current vote-by-mail options.
“Somewhere between 90 million and 105 million ballots might come through the mail,” said Eddie Perez, global director of technology development at the OSET Institute, a nonprofit election technology organization. “If what we're seeing in other primary elections is any guide, it's probably safe to estimate that somewhere between 65% and 75% of all ballots cast in the November election might come by mail.”
“That's a very, very significant volume of mail,” he added.
To get an idea of how significant, the share of voters who cast ballots via mail-in methods increased nearly threefold between 1996 and 2016 – from 7.8% to nearly 21%, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the Census Bureau’s voter supplement data. Of course, the total number of voters in each election wasn’t the same, and isn’t known for 2020, so the comparison is imprecise. But the leap from nearly 21% to 75% or even 65% of all votes coming by mail is significant.
Numerous logistical and security challenges must be met to make sure voting by mail goes smoothly. Of particular concern is the security of states’ voter registration databases, which could be a rich target for hackers.
Still, election experts say that the mail-in voting process has checks throughout, enhanced by technology and election software, starting with the ballot sent to the voter.
“Sometimes you hear talk as if blank ballots are simply being sent out into the world almost willy-nilly without control,” Perez said. “And that's simply not the case. There’s always a tight association between a voter whose eligibility has already been verified and the step of actually sending that voter a ballot.”
Running digital traps
Once the voter mails in or drops off the ballot, the county’s voting software system goes to work. Digital scanners take images of the ballot envelope to make sure the voter’s signature on the outside matches the one the county has on file. Barcoded information on the ballots is scanned and cross-referenced with the voter registration record.
“The county always knows who has been issued a ballot, is that indeed an eligible voter, is every single ballot received coming from an eligible voter,” Perez said. “Once those traps have been run, there’s a critical process verifying that the ballot and the voter’s name on the ballot actually came from the voter.”
A digital scanner scans the ballots and counting begins. Any anomaly – a missing or wrong signature, a stray mark – is sent to a team to review.
Neal Kelley is the registrar of voters for Orange County, California. He expects to start processing mailed-in ballots 30 days before the official election day.
“There's multiple times those ballots run through that automation because it's like a factory floor,” he said. “It's quality control standards, because we have to look at the signature more closely.”
Voters can track their ballot’s progress, much like the way they can track a package being delivered – via text messages or a ballot tracking app, Kelley said.
“It actually gives you more data than your Amazon package,” he said.
Uncounted mail-in ballots
But voting by mail isn’t a panacea. Not all who vote get their ballots counted. In California’s March 2020 primary, about 100,000 mail-in ballots – about 1.5% of the 7 million turned in – did not get counted, according to the Associated Press.
Common problems with mail-in ballots include those mailed too late, voters failing to sign ballot envelopes and voters’ signatures not matching the ones the county has on file.
Reforms around the country have addressed these problems. This year, California has extended the window for when mail ballots need to arrive to be counted: 17 days after Election Day. If there is a problem with a ballot, such as problem matching the ballot’s signature with the one on file, counties must contact voters to see if they can fix the problem.
But even with those reforms, Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, said she worries about one group – young and new voters.
“They have three strikes against them,” she said. “They are unfamiliar with voting. They are not very familiar with how the U.S. Postal Service works. And they're not used to making a signature. They don't write checks. They don't sign checks. So you put all those three together, and it means we have a lot of outreach and education work.”
That’s what election officials are doing now, racing the clock, checking voter registrations, sending mailers to get the word out about how to vote by mail.
Not everything will go smoothly, they say, and the public may have to be patient. Election results may not be known for weeks, perhaps not until early December.