“Vote-by-mail” is a growing trend in the United States. According to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), more than 33 million voters in the 2016 Presidential Election voted by mail. Voters registered in Oregon, Washington and Colorado already automatically receive their ballot in the mail, and California will join their ranks once they implement legislation that passed in 2016. As vote-by-mail is becoming more widely used, it’s important for elections administrators to educate the public on the process and continue to find ways to improve the voter experience.
One great place to start is a report published by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Democracy Fund grantee, that highlights the ways voting by mail and absentee voting has changed and what voters, legislators, election officials, and the United States Postal Service (USPS) can do to ensure that type of voting remains a viable option for the American electorate.
Another useful resource is the 2014 report (PDF) from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), which includes several recommendations to improve the voting experience for voters.
USPS has played a key role in the development of election administration best practices for the vote by mail process and has instituted some of their own. During the final days of ballot return postal employees sweep processing plants hourly looking for mail pieces bearing the official election material mail logo to ensure that ballots are being processed within their delivery standards. In 2016 they embraced a new tool to communicate with election officials. Electionmail.org was developed by Democracy Fund grantee Democracy Works and provides a channel for administrators to communicate issues directly with postal leadership.
Why does this matter?
We live in an increasingly digital era where most people go online to communicate, pay bills, and transact business. The volume of mail – while still in the billions of mail pieces each year – no longer required the supporting infrastructure that was in place. Because of this, the U.S. Postal Service consolidated its processing plants and streamlined the sorting of mail. All mail now goes through the centralized processing plants, is sorted, and redirected to its destination. This automation allows for election ballot tracking, a PCEA recommendation, but it has also contributed to the delivery standard changes that happened in 2015.
Has this had a significant impact on a voter’s ability to cast an effective ballot? The EAC reports that, in 2016, more than 47% of rejected ballots were due to missing or invalid signatures, and roughly 23% of the rejected ballots were because they were returned after the deadline. Historically there are always some people who miss the deadline to return ballots in time to be counted in a given election, but the EAC data shows that the number of late ballots has decreased since 2012 even though greater numbers of voters are choosing this method of voting and we have longer delivery standards.
If voters fail to get their ballot mailed with enough time for delivery to their election office, many have the option of dropping their ballot off at their polling site. In addition to offering this drop-off option, some states allow for information on the envelope to be used to ensure that the voter did, in fact, mail the ballot before the polls closed on Election Day. Iowa and Indiana have passed legislation allowing for the use of Intelligent Mail Barcode data. In Ohio, the Secretary of State issued a directive that the orange USPS processing marks could also be used—and because of this Cuyahoga County was able to count an additional 73 ballots in the 2016 Presidential Election.
Close elections bring scrutiny, and Virginia is the perfect example of how crucial process is to ensuring and retaining voter participation year after year. In 2017, the state experienced elections with razor-thin margins in vote counts—in one instance the winner was determined by a draw after a tied result. The day after Election Day, election officials in Stafford County picked up 55 ballots at their post office box, and questions were raised about whether the ballots arrived in time, and who exactly was responsible for ensuring they were counted—the voter, the Postal Service, or the jurisdiction.
What have we learned from last year’s election in Virginia?
First, ballot tracking is important and election officials should use it. The state of Virginia recently implemented a statewide election mail tracking system called BallotScout—a project by Democracy Fund grantee TurboVote—as a way for both voters and election officials to determine where the ballots are in the process. Indeed, Virginia Registrar Dave Bjerke from the City of Falls Church posted on social media that a voter called to complain that they had not gotten their ballot. The tracking showed that the mail had been delivered to the voter; and with the Registrar on the line they began to dig through the piles on their desk and subsequently found the missing ballot. The question we should ask regarding the close election in Virginia is: was election mail tracking used to the full extent—and if not, why?
Second, ballot envelopes should have the official election material mail logo on them so that the voters know it is official information and USPS can recognize it as an important mail piece.
Third, voters need to have information to make informed decisions. Voters may be prone to procrastination and need to have options the week before Election Day if they fail to get the ballot mailed in time. Data can be used to identify whether ballots have been put into the USPS system. Some jurisdictions make available secure ballot drop off sites, and some allow vote by mail ballots to be turned in at the polls on Election Day.
Eligible voters will greatly improve their ability to “vote by mail” successfully by following these recommendations. At Democracy Fund, we are committed to supporting election officials in their work to run elections and improve the voter experience. For more info on vote by mail best practices, visit the resources page at electionmail.org and the election mail page at USPS.gov.