[Image courtesy of lucreid]
One of my personal highlights of every election year is seeing large media outlets "discover" one or more aspects of election administration. The latest example is the New York Times' recent front-page article looking at the "error and fraud" involved with absentee and vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots. Here's the basic premise:
[S]tates are swiftly moving from voting at a polling place toward voting by mail. In the last general election in Florida, in 2010, 23 percent of voters cast absentee ballots, up from 15 percent in the midterm election four years before. Nationwide, the use of absentee ballots and other forms of voting by mail has more than tripled since 1980 and now accounts for almost 20 percent of all votes.
Yet votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth, statistics show. Election officials reject almost 2 percent of ballots cast by mail, double the rate for in-person voting.
That premise is accurate and I have no quarrel with the reporting, which covers an impressive array of practitioners, advocates and academics on the topic of absentee/VBM ballots.
I do think, however, that the piece misses the mark in that it seems imply 1) that the challenges with absentee voting/VBM are unique and 2) that it's possible somehow to reverse the upward trend in demand for such ballots nationwide.
It is undeniable that ballots cast outside the polling place - especially those mailed in for counting - have vulnerabilities, whether it's missing signatures, insufficient postage or more insidious practices like the so-called "granny farming" described in the article. Indeed, my friend and colleague Charles Stewart has observed that absentee/VBM systems are "leaky" in terms of lost votes. Using preliminary 2008 statistics, he found that
36 million people requested mail ballots in 2008, whereas only 28 million absentee ballots were counted, leading to a "leakage" in the absentee ballot pipeline of 8 million ballots, or roughly 20% of requests.
Where did the leaks occur? The data from these studies suggest that 4 million ballots were requested but not received, 3 million were transmitted but not returned for counting, and 800,000 ballots were returned for counting, but rejected.
These numbers are disconcerting and definitely pose a challenge to election officials, but it's important to remember that other forms of voting also come with their own particular challenges. Traditional polling place voting relies heavily on well-functioning machines and pollworkers, and breakdowns there can and do result in lost votes. Newer multi-precinct polling places require everyone involved to ensure that voters get the correct ballot, and generate pressure on election officials to prevent invalid ballots cast due to pollworker error. Even the trend toward Election Day vote centers involves consolidation of polling locations that may or may not create problems for voters unable to travel to the vote center on Election Day. [I will also note the prospect of Internet voting and then back slowly away.]
In other words, we are finally coming to understand that choosing one or modes of voting - and establishing procedures and safeguards to ensure each one runs smoothly - is less of an empirical exercise than a policy choice for election officials. Every mode of voting - including absentee/VBM - comes with its own set of costs, benefits, opportunities and threats that must be taken into account when conducting elections in the field. Early estimates on the "leakiness" of absentee/VBM seem to suggest it is higher than other modes of voting, but it isn't clear whether that's inherent or a function of how new it is in many communities.
Moreover, I simply don't see election officials or policymakers being able to reverse the absentee voting/VBM trend. American voters, especially younger voters, appear to be abandoning the traditional polling place in ever-increasing numbers. I'm not sure that a front-page Times piece is going to be enough to persuade them to return.
Given this steady demand, I think the implied question in the Times piece ("Is absentee/VBM a good idea?") is the wrong one to ask. A better question is "given the demand for absentee voting /VBM, how can we ensure that the process works the way it's supposed to? Absentee voting/VBM may be a policy choice, but making that choice work is the province of election administrators nationwide.