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Vote-by-Mail: Is it Safe?

Written by Tritek Blog on September 24, 2020 in General

Man peering over ballot envelope

 

This year, Vote-by-Mail has become a national obsession among politicians, news outlets, critics, and proponents. Several groups are pressing for states to encourage their citizens to lessen their exposure to the coronavirus by voting in the November election from their homes. Other groups vehemently oppose the idea. They are either of the specter of voter fraud or believe vote-by-mail offers an advantage to one political party or the other.

Most of the individuals we see reporting the news about vote-by-mail aren’t mailing professionals. They do not understand how mail is processed, transferred, and managed. Baseless claims, cherry-picked facts, and misinformation abound, which leads to confusion and concern.

An election held amid a viral pandemic is a challenge no election boards were considering when they began planning their 2020 operations. Now they are scrambling to react to these unexpected conditions and pressure from all sides.

The concern about an election based to a good degree on absentee ballots is well-founded. Analysts expect voter turnout this year to shatter previous records, and many citizens will exercise their option to vote by mail. According to the New York Times, three-quarters of voters in America will be eligible to vote by mail in the 2020 presidential election-a historic high point. In 34 states, voters can apply for absentee ballots because of the coronavirus, or for no reason at all. Many states recently changed their absentee ballot rules because of the pandemic.

 

How Vote-By-Mail Works

You may wonder how all this will work. The answers aren’t as straightforward as you might think. Because state or local officials, not a national agency, manage elections, policies and processes across the nation are inconsistent. The way jurisdictions handle incoming vote-by-mail ballots changes from place to place. Local laws, policies, procedures, and even the construction of the mail-in ballot packet will affect how election officials will deal with an unprecedented onslaught of ballots returned by mail or dropped into collection boxes by voters.

Some states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) have conducted their elections entirely by mail for some time. From a ballot processing standpoint, this election will probably be business as usual for them. Through experience, these states have developed ballot designs, voter education programs, and ballot processing workflows that will allow them to handle the 2020 election with ease.

Other parts of the country may have used automated systems for verifying and counting mail-in ballots in previous elections, but the expected increase in volumes this year will be a strain on capacity. Many of them are looking to suppliers like Tritek Technologies to augment their existing equipment with new ballot processing machines. Still other jurisdictions have always relied rely on manual workflows to process the low volume of absentee ballots they received. These smaller operations may be looking at mechanical ballot verification and sorting solutions for the first time. Tritek’s Correct Elect systems are suitable for such environments, but can also support larger operations.

Though the rules and processes differ, the basics of inbound vote-by-mail ballot processing are similar across all election boards:

  1. Receive, track, and time-stamp incoming ballots
  2. Verify voter registrations and their addresses
  3. Verify the uniqueness of each ballot-only one ballot per voter is allowed, regardless of voting method
  4. Verify voter identity via signature comparison
  5. Separate any questionable ballots for examination by human bi-partisan teams
  6. Sort ballots by precinct
  7. Open envelopes
  8. Remove ballots from envelopes that contain voter identities-ballots are anonymous when votes are counted
  9. Tabulate votes

 

Tracking and Verifying

Some election-processing facilities use USPS Intelligent Mail barcodes (IMb) to track the progress of each ballot as it travels from the voter to the ballot processing center. Incoming mail tracked via the IMb can also alert election headquarters if they do not receive expected batches of ballots on time. Note that ballots voters drop into ballot collection boxes instead of mailing them will not receive a USPS Intelligent Mail barcode.

Voters in some states can subscribe to a free tracking service that issues personalized messages via text, email, or voice to provide information about the status of their ballots. Other systems don’t proactively send alerts, but can be accessed by voters to verify their ballots were received and counted. These measures help reassure voters the vote-by-mail system is working.

If ballot signatures are missing or do not match the signatures on record, elections officials attempt to contact the voter so they may correct the deficiency and have their votes counted. Again, the local rules will determine how jurisdictions handle signature and registration verification. Encouraging  voters to return their ballots early is one way to ensure they have time to make corrections before the ballot counting deadline arrives.

 

What About Voting Twice?

The idea of voting twice, by mailing an absentee ballot and then arriving at the polling place on election day to vote again, has been covered extensively in the news. Some speakers even suggested voters try this tactic as a way to test the integrity of the system. What they fail to mention is although it may be possible for voters to execute this maneuver in some instances, it’s unlikely for their votes to count twice.

When someone has already voted via absentee ballot, electronic poll books used at polling stations will display the status of their vote and poll workers will turn the voter away. Should a voter slip through somehow, election systems will notice two votes from the same voter and only count the first one received. The other will be discarded. Election boards also conduct post-election audits to compare voter history against ballots cast.

In another scenario, a jurisdiction’s rules may prevent them from counting absentee ballots until after the polls close. Their systems then reject the absentee ballot if the person had also voted in-person during early voting periods or on election day.

It’s also difficult to double your vote by submitting two absentee ballots. Election systems will count only one of the ballots-either the first or last received, according to local rules.

 

Not Worth the Risk

Citizens convicted of intentionally committing voter fraud by voting more than once in a federal election will suffer the negative lifelong effects of a criminal record listing a third degree felony. Punishment can include $5000 to $10,000 fines, and up to ten years in jail. The practice is high-risk and low reward. In most cases, individuals committing fraud will not sway a national election. Most voters will decide that risking future employment opportunities, their right to vote, firearms ownership, and more because of a felony conviction isn’t worth the try.

It’s also a criminal offense to deceive someone about their mail-in ballot, impersonate someone else in order to vote, steal ballots, or forge a signature on a ballot. With ballots transported through the mail, the US Postal Inspection Service may get involved-an agency with a 98% conviction rate. Fears about widespread fraud committed by individual voters are unfounded-especially for national elections. It’s simply impractical.

Tritek Correct Elect systems draw upon our company’s extensive experience in handling incoming mail. Correct Elect reads all styles of machine-printed and hand-addressed mail ballots at rates up to 15,000 ballots per hour. The systems aid election boards in the handling of absentee ballots and play a part in ensuring the integrity and accuracy of the process.

The Tritek equipment compares ballot signatures against signatures of record for automatic or manual signature verification. Our systems process the addresses, signatures, and barcodes while printing the time and date on each ballot. We archive the data in color, gray-scale, or black and white. After capturing data and verifying the signatures, Correct Elect systems sort the ballots to the proper precincts.

Washington State, which has been conducting elections by mail since 2005, and many other jurisdictions in the US, rely on Correct Elect to help them run safe, accurate vote-by-mail elections. This year we’ve been busy augmenting the capabilities of automation-enabled election boards and helping those for whom automated ballot handling is a new venture. We’ve worked with many entities to explain the changes they must implement to be successful in this important election and those to follow. To learn how Correct Elect can make a difference to your organization, contact Tritek Technologies

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