Post #826: Vote by mail

Posted on September 26, 2020

I deposited my mail-in ballot at the Vienna post office yesterday.  And by yesterday evening, it had gotten as far as the Merrifield sorting center.  Which I was able to tell via a simple on-line query on the Fairfax County Board of Elections website

My wife, by contrast, left hers out for the mail carrier to pick up.  And she reports that hers, too, is already at Merrifield.

For any election, you have to have faith that the parties involved will perform their roles in a fair, competent, and legal fashion.  As long as you don’t wait until the last minute, I think the USPS is the least of your worries. And this ability to track ballot status just gives you that much more reassurance that you ballot is on its way to being counted.

The absentee ballot mailing reminded me of the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes.  Lots of little pieces of paper.  But all you need to know is that it takes two envelopes to return your ballot by mail.  Your ballot needs to go into the envelope that you must sign.  And that then goes into the mailing envelope.

And, despite the directions, the law has changed, and you do not need to have a witness sign your envelope.  Just be sure to sign it yourself.

One good reason to vote early is that if there’s a problem with your mail-in ballot, and your vote is received before October 31, election officials have to give you an opportunity to fix your ballot.  That’s a new provision of the law, and was only passed at the end of August 2020 (see below).  But if you wait to the last minute, and you mess up your ballot, tough: All that election officials are required to do in that case is notify you that your ballot got rejected

Nationally, it sure looks like the Republicans are getting set to pull as many shenanigans as they can get away with.  Which is pretty much the hallmark of the national Republican party, so that’s no big surprise.  If you are unlucky enough to live in a state with Republican governor of the looney right persuasion (and so, cousin Larry excepted), you’ll have to deal with whatever they can manage to dish out.

But here, in Fairfax County, I’m fairly sure that my vote will be counted.

There are some nuances to this process that I didn’t realize. But at least some of those are due to recent changes in the law.

According to reporting in the Washington Post:

  • Election officials can pre-process absentee ballots before election day.  They have to have officials of both parties present when they do that.  Pull them out of the envelopes and feed them through the vote counters.  But the tally is not announced prior to election day.
  • If, for whatever reason, they reject your ballot, they’ll notify you and give you an opportunity to correct it.

I can verify that second part, because that’s a key feature of a bill that passed the Virginia Senate in late August and was signed into law.  You can read the text of that bill at this URL.   And it looks like the first part — centralized counting of absentee votes “prior to the close of polls” — was a long-standing part of the law, but subject to local (county or city) option.  That portion of the law can be found at this URL.  It overrides any other part of the law requiring ballots to be counted at individual local precincts.

Based on that, it’s hard to understand why people think that we won’t know the outcome of the until weeks afterward.  At least, not in Virginia.

All the absentee votes that were submitted in a timely manner will have already been counted.  Anyone whose vote was rejected will have already been given a chance to “cure” it.  Only if large numbers of people procrastinate will there be any sort of material logjam in the vote counting.

I also note that the law proscribes rejecting ballots for trivial reasons.  If you skip your middle initial, or forget to date it, it’s still valid.  And there’s no longer a witness signature requirement.  Both a Democrat and a Republican poll worker must sign the statement announcing why a ballot was rejected.  (And since the only other thing on the envelope is your signature, I guess that would be the basis for rejecting it, if any.)

Finally, based on some newspaper reporting, I think that rejected mail-in ballots are quite rare in Virginia.  In a recent election in Arlington, about 100 were rejected, mostly for lack of a witness signature.  But even with that, rejected absentee ballots accounted for just 1 percent of all absentee ballots.  And now, under the revised law, voters casting one of those flawed ballots would have a right to fix them, if they voted early enough.

I guess I should make some comments on the alleged insecurity of voting by mail.  It’s not.  I had to be a registered voter.  I had to know my Virginia drivers’ license number to request a ballot.  The envelope was sent to my address, via the USPS.  I returned it, with tracking, to the Board of Elections, via USPS.  On election day, if I were to show up at the polls, without an un-opened ballot in hand, they should bar me from voting because the voter registration lists mark all individuals who were sent an absentee ballot.

Near as I can tell, there’s no way for me to vote twice, absent pure clerical error (which in this case means computer error) on the part of the registrar.  That is, there’s no scheme that would plausibly allow many persons to cast duplicate votes.  Once you’ve requested a mail-in ballot, you are marked on the voter roster as “AB” (absentee ballot), and you may not cast a vote in person unless you arrive with your un-opened ballot in hand.

And there’s no way for anyone to vote in my name, short of doing the following.  One, knowing when the ballot would arrive and stealing it out of my mailbox (a felony).  And then, if we are talking about mass, undiscovered fraud, having me not notice that I didn’t get a ballot, and then not show up to vote in person.  That’s the only way somebody could vote in my name, undetected.  Or, two, accessing the Virginia voter registration system pretending to be me (a felony), knowing my Virginia drivers’ license number (not even remotely plausible), changing my registered address to some physical location with a mailbox, and picking up my ballot, at that physical address (and so, if like 10,000 ballots were sent to one address, I think Virginia would notice).  And then hoping that I didn’t bother to check my voter registration, and that did not go to vote in person, at which point the fraud would be discovered.

Maybe some Russian hackers can figure out some way to defeat this system on behalf of the Republican party.  (Emails!). But I sure don’t see how.  Barring some super-genius at work, using methods that I cannot even dream of, this certainly appears to be a reasonably secure way to vote.