Vote by Mail is a solution not without risks

A Vote by Mail election is a solution not without risks. Various US Congressional bills over the past couple of months have  proposed permanently making Vote by Mail and other elections provisions the law of the land. While Vote by Mail could be a good solution for the social distancing issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the US election system is complex and we need to avoid considering nationalization as a solution. Before we rush into making sweeping changes to our electoral process, let us take a collective breath. 

A key aspect of a Vote by Mail election system requires that we verify and trust the signature on the paper registration form submitted to the local county registrar. The traditional method involves manually verifying if the newly provided signature matches the signature on file. Mistakes could lead to voter ineligibility. Additionally,  this method does not scale to counties with hundreds of thousands of voters. There are many examples of poor handwriting analysis resulting in voters mistakenly dropped from the voting rolls. Confusion and lawsuits result. 

Some states like Colorado provide a detailed guide to explain how to match signatures. Even with the few states that have moved to Vote by Mail as a standard, only their largest counties use commercial scanners to verify and match signatures of submitted ballots. Unfortunately, most local election officials bear the burden of new equipment purchases which slows improvements like electronically matching signatures. This puts the burden for a majority of the election officials to manually match signatures. 

Poor voter registration signature matching increases the risk for fraud. Ballot harvesting or the practice of a political party gathering ballots is a serious risk to the security of the US elections system. In California it was reported that multiple people dropped off 100-200 ballots at a time in the 2016 election. In 2018, North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District rejected the election results and called for a new election over ballot harvesting. While the use of electronic registration signature matching will reduce this type of potential fraud, additional protections must be put into place. 

Only by transparency of the signature matching process can the election registration rolls be fully trusted. This means making the commercial systems available for scrutiny and verification of their error rates. A public open source project similar to what the EAC and NIST support needs to be established to make this possible. In addition, there are existing projects like Los Angeles County’s VSAP that support Vote by Mail elections that we need to explore and support as alternatives to commercial options. The timely notification that a voter has been deemed ineligible to vote will contribute to election registration transparency while helping to mitigate signature matching errors. This transparency provides voters the opportunity to challenge being dropped from the voting rolls. These above processes taken together could eliminate intentional fraud.

While the federal government cannot solve all the state’s problems with managing elections, the US Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) does have a track record of providing grants, collaboration, and guidelines for election systems improvements. Congress has been debating improvements to the election system throughout the year. On the subject of Vote by Mail there have been 39 committee reports, congressional records, and bills for the 116th Congress. In the agreed Senate version of the bill HR 748, Congress correctly decided to support the EAC and the community of election officials they work with, enabling them to develop timely solutions within the existing framework of elections laws and regulations. 

The March 2020 HR 6379 risked making Vote by Mail the law of the land with poor security and fraud oversight. Additionally, it sought to nationalize our election system bypassing the existing elections framework, inviting lawsuits. The US election system is a complex organization that cannot be fixed by one bill and 3200 words. Vote by mail is an important technical solution that can be useful in our pandemic situation. However, without system wide improvements in verifying paper signatures and coordination within the existing election framework, it could cause serious damage. Let us not simply use this solution without serious thought to how we apply it to voting in November 2020.

Image (Ivan Couronne / AFP/Getty Images)

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