Delays In Counting Ballots Causes Confusion with Voters

Communication on the Vote by Mail Process is Required For The Public Trust 

Across the county vote by mail elections are being ramped up to protect people from having to make the choice of getting sick or doing their civic duty by voting. 

There has been a rush to accommodate the demand for vote by mail registrations. In Pennsylvania they received 1.8 million absentee and vote by mail registrations. This was an increase of 16 times from the last federal election in 2016. Similarly, the largest full service ballot printer in the US, Runbeck Election Services, estimates they will deliver close to 50 million stuffed ballot envelopes through the US Post Office in 2020. They are ramping up their business to triple their capacity of 2016. Jeff Ellington, the company’s president and chief operating officer believes that even with this build out, they will not be able to accommodate the ballot printing requests as they get closer to November. 

Even with the proper planning, election officials warn states that changing voting procedures requires additional effort to be put into public communication both before and during the election. The public needs to better understand how the absentee and vote by mail process works. Most importantly, the public needs to recognize that a delay of days or weeks in the election results is likely. 

From the moment the voter drops off their completed absentee ballot, a complex series of steps is put into motion. I will explain them here to help describe why the complexity creates delays in reporting. 

The absentee ballot can be returned in most states by the voter either dropping off the ballot in a sealed envelope at a US Post Office, their local mailbox, or at a voter drop box. Most current absentee provisions allow voters to submit their ballots by mail as long as they are postmarked by election day. If a large number of people mail and postmark their ballots on election day Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020 (instead of taking advantage of early voting) the ballot will arrive a few days after that. Then, election officials must count those ballots for a non-uniform amount of time, pushing the election results additional days after the election.

Each absentee ballot envelope has a space for the voter’s signature. Some states require additional information such as a witness signature and / or a notarization as well. When a ballot arrives at the election office, the back of the envelope must be signed by the voter. 15 states do not allow any processing of ballot envelopes before election day. A few allow signature verification upon receipt from the US Post Office. Most states have some number of days before the election to begin signature verification.

The bottom line is that most states wait until close to Election Day to begin validating the ballot envelope signature, adding at least days to the process. Additionally, envelopes without a signature and / or the proper additional documentation are required to be adjudicated. 

Adjudication or “curing” is the process of double checking all the available options to accept a ballot. The adjudication process will vary with different election offices, but it is always time intensive. It is common practice to make an effort to count all votes rather than discard or spoil envelopes or ballots requiring adjudication. Working in pairs, poll workers use guides that provide text and images to describe marks, combination of marks, and other possible variations. Generally anything not in the guides is resolved by a poll supervisor. The process can involve multiple stages of review, random audits by secondary teams, and even quality control teams to verify the guides are being used.

The ballot envelope signature verification process in most states requires the envelope to have an area reserved for the registered voter’s signature. In a majority of states, the signature is required to be verified to match the registered voter signature on file. The registered voter signature can be provided by a paper voter roll, a local registered voter database, a state registered voter database, or a regional registered voter database such as Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). Jurisdictions match the registered voter signature either by utilizing the same commercial scanners used for the scanning the ballots, separate commercial scanners specific for the envelopes, or by hand. Envelopes that have signatures that do not match the registered voter signature on file for any reason are set aside to be adjudicated. 

After the ballot envelope signature has been verified, the absentee ballots need to be scanned or hand counted. When scanners are used, they utilize Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to find the voter’s selections and then tally the votes. Even with the automation provided by the scanners and software tabulation, the tabulation process is time consuming. Handing stacks of paper ballots and dealing with paper jams is a constant issue. Absentee ballot processing delays the results of providing a count of the election results on election day. Due to the issues of dealing with absentee ballots, 17 states begin some form of tabulating absentee ballots before election day.

When the voter’s selections on the ballot are unclear, the ballot is required to be adjudicated. Commonly ballot adjudication can come from a damaged ballot that cannot be scanned, a ballot with one or more blank selections, too many selections or overvotes, and / or write-ins. Additionally, when using same day voting registration, a damaged ballot, or registration errors, a provisional ballot must be used in the place of a regular ballot. Provisional ballots are required to be kept separate from regular ballots, are generally counted with a separate process and can take days to weeks to process. Often provisional ballots require poll workers to communicate with the voter in order to clear the ballot to be counted.

Given each state has different timelines and protocols, delays may or may not occur. Delays in election results for the sake of accuracy are normal in US elections. But expected delays need to be communicated to the public in order to preserve faith in the system. With enough manpower and proper planning, vote by mail elections could actually reduce the time to report election results by doing a lot of the work up front before election day.

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