Kate Albright / Montclair Local
The hand-in vote, which tens of millions of Americans are expected to use in November, is full of potential problems. Hundreds of thousands of votes are not counted each year because people make mistakes, such as forgetting to sign the form or submit it too late.
An NPR analysis has found that in the primary elections held so far this year, at least 65,000 absentee or post-polls have been rejected because they arrived past the deadline, often without the choice of error.
Although the number is relatively small – about 1% in most states – they can prove crucial in a close election, especially one where many more voters are expected to leave voting and postal polls to avoid voting during a pandemic .
Those using postal voting for the first time – especially young, black and Latin voters – are more likely to have their ballots rejected for errors, said Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies electoral administration.
“It is the kind that makes me cautious about what will happen in November when we get an even greater influx of people who have not voted or have not voted by mail in the past,” he says.
The political parties and voting groups are well aware of what is at stake and have launched aggressive legal campaigns to try to formulate the rules for November.
Democrats and voter advocacy groups have filed targets in at least 10 states, challenging laws that require post-in ballots to be received before or before Election Day. They ask judges to allow voting to be accepted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, due to difficulties voters may encounter in the pandemic and delayed mail delivery.
The Republican Party and electoral integrity groups are fighting back. They claim that extending the deadline will undermine public confidence in the results, which could be delayed by weeks. They also insist, without evidence, that it will increase the potential for fraud – a position that Trump has repeatedly repeated.
Meanwhile, voters have been left confused, discouraged and in some cases exposed.
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Susie Sonneborn of Montclair, NJ, says she tried to be extra careful to make sure her vote was postmarked in time when she voted in a mayoral race in May. But when she heard that more than 1,100 votes – 9% of the total – had been rejected, she checked into the local electoral office and was shocked to discover that she was one of them.
“It was just really disappointing and surprising that I followed the instructions printed on the ballot and was set up for failure,” she says. Sonneborn insists that she didn’t see anywhere that her vote needed to be taken within two days of the election to count, which was especially frustrating as the mayors’ race was decided by only 195 votes. Residents held a meeting outside the City Hall that day the new mayor’s defense in and demanded officials to “count every vote” in future elections.
Other states also report a large number of rejected ballots. More than 5% was not counted in Virginia’s primary June because they arrived late. Nor was more than 1% of the votes in Pennsylvania and Nevada last month counted for the same reason.
In Wisconsin’s chaotic primary April, 2,659 votes were rejected for missing the deadline, but the number could have been much higher. About 79,000 votes were received after Election Day but within a six-day period that was allowed on an urgent basis.
Tens of thousands of other polls were discarded this year for other reasons, usually due to a missing or incorrect signature. Last week, League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit in New York, where more than 34,000 absentee ballots – or 14% of the total – were rejected in 2018. The group wants voters to have the opportunity to correct any issues before their ballots are discarded.
The suit is part of a flood of litigation on postal ballot this year.
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Democrats and progressive groups are voting to change the rules in Florida, where 18,504 votes per vote by mail – more than 1.3% of the total – were rejected in the state’s primary March for various reasons, including missed deadlines. The lawsuit claims that post-in ballots must only be postmarked – not received – by 7pm on Election Day.
Kirk Nielsen, the plaintiff in the case, says that the fate of a vote is out of the voter’s hands when it goes in the mail. Hans was one of thousands of votes rejected in the state in 2018. Nielsen says he sent it eight days before Election Day, but it was not received until eight days after. He worries about being released again.
“I want to vote for the post this year because of the pandemic. I don’t want to get sick at a crowded polling station. As I said, I think there is an even greater risk this year of voting by mail that my letter vote may not count, together with thousands of others, “says Nielsen.
His case is scheduled to be heard this month, but Republicans were heard by the judge’s refusal to issue a preliminary injunction against the state’s post-in rules.
The judge said that the day of reception for Election Day “eliminates the problem of missing, unclear or even altered postal marks, eliminates delays that can have negative consequences, and eliminates the remote possibility that in an extremely close election – Florida has had someone – a person who did not vote whether or before Election Day can fill in and submit a ballot later. “
These are all arguments Republicans have made to defend to keep the ballot currently available in most states.
“Allowing huge numbers of votes to come up or the bill continuing well after Election Day really leaves room for fraud,” said Mandi Merritt, national press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “It allows losing candidates or other party companies to find more late votes that could potentially change the legitimate outcome of an election and really just leave room for unnecessary litigation.”
While Merritt did not give an example, she says that even the possibility of fraud would undermine voters’ confidence in the results.
Most election officials would not agree that the candidates could “find more late votes” to change the results, but some worry about extending the deadline for other reasons.
Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, believes voters would be confused if the deadline were changed so close to the election, especially during a year when the pandemic has increased voting in so many other ways. She says it takes time to educate the public and make such changes, which can be more complicated than people think.
“There is an assumption that every entry is automatically postmarked, and that’s just not the case,” says Hobbs. “Our polls are paid by postage, so they are sent with a mass permit, and often these items are not labeled.”
Hobbs says a deadline on the postmark would require the state to arrange for post offices to provide such postmarks or to come up with another system to track voting.
Arizona recently reached a deal with progressive groups that voted to extend the voting deadline. The state has agreed to increase voter education and outreach programs and encourage other alternatives, including drop boxes where voters can deposit their absentee ballots, which will later be picked up by election officials. Hobbs says this option allows voters to get their votes in on time without risking exposure to coronavirus at the post office or an election site.
A number of states have increased their use of drop boxes. But the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign don’t like that option either. They recently filed a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania, claiming that such release boxes are unsafe, prone to fraud and should be banned.