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Votes by Mail Are Less Likely to Be Counted

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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vote,election,fraudThe biggest challenge to voting accuracy in the U.S. isn’t hanging chads or hacked voting machines—it’s the mail. A new report by the Voting Technology Project (VTP)—a joint venture between the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—finds that even though absentee ballots account for about only a quarter of all ballots cast during an election, the number of uncounted absentee and election-day ballots may be roughly the same.

The researchers estimate that up to 3.9 million absentee ballots were requested but not received by voters in the 2008 presidential election. Another 2.9 million ballots sent to voters requesting them were not returned for counting. And 800,000 returned absentee ballots were rejected for one reason or another. In all, 21 percent of requested absentee ballots were never counted in 2008—35.5 million requests for absentee ballots led to 27.9 million mail-in ballots being counted.

The number of unaccounted for mail-in votes is comparable to the number that fall through the cracks at in-precinct voting locations, a problem likely to grow as demand for more convenient methods of voting increases, according to the report. Votes cast by absentee and early voting have more than doubled in the past 12 years, leading the report’s authors to warn that these voter-friendly initiatives could sabotage the accuracy of the overall election process.

In the 2008 election more than 28 percent of votes were submitted by mail or at early voting centers, more than twice the 14 percent in 2000. Perhaps the most significant transformation in how Americans vote since 2000 is “when and where we vote, rather than the machines we use,” the VTP report states.

The researchers acknowledge that they can only speculate as to what happens to these uncounted absentee ballots. In some cases, they note, absentee ballots can be intercepted before they even get into the mail stream. Other concerns are that people can buy or sell these ballots. There aren’t any strict chain-of-custody procedures for ensuring that the person who receives an absentee ballot in the mail is the same person who returns it, the researchers say.

Absentee and early voting has long been available to military personnel and voters unable to cast ballots in their home districts, but this convenience has more recently been extended to encourage people to vote and to ease the sometimes chaotic conditions found at polling stations on election day. Currently 36 states (plus the District of Columbia) now offer no-excuse absentee ballots, early voting or some combination of the two. Oregon and Washington have done away with traditional polling places entirely. All voting there is conducted by mail.

The report’s authors argue that the country needs to reverse the trend towards increased absentee and early voting. States should discourage absentee balloting among voters who do not require this service, they say. Likewise, election officials should quash the idea of Internet voting until the technology can be secured and audited. The researchers also call for additional research into new methods to get usable ballots to military and overseas civilian voters securely, accurately and quickly, and to make sure those ballots are returned in time to be counted.

Image courtesy of UkraineToday, via Wikimedia Commons

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Daniel35 11:04 pm 10/19/2012

    But how about Oregon, where we don’t have booths, but turn in out secret ballots at streetside boxes, or by mail? I haven’t heard about any shortages in vote coverage.

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  2. 2. letzelfarm 5:01 pm 10/20/2012

    They must only be addressing absentee ballots. In Oregon everyone votes by mail and I think it is the most effective and voter-friendly way to do it. There has been no known security issues, voters do not have to waste gas, wait in line, hire a babysitter, take off work, etc. The problem with absentee ballots is that it is a secondary system and probably gets far less attention than the main system in those states using it.

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  3. 3. jossgirl 3:18 am 10/22/2012

    On election night the networks are scrambling to come up ASAP with the winners – how does this work with states like Oregon that have all mail-in ballots? The talking heads are telling us that the mail-in ballots can’t be tabulated for days – why is that – why can’t they count them on election day or even before, since the election workers have the ballots and the ballots can’t be changed. In a close election this could delay the outcome for a long time.

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  4. 4. GRBREW 6:08 pm 10/23/2012

    I’ve lived all over the country and Washington and Oregon have it right. It’s easy and I’m more likely to vote regardless of weather conditions or my work schedule. With an aging population we should be making it easier to vote for everyone. Standing in line out in the weather or being turned away due to an inefficient and overly bureaucatic system or lack of systems does not encourage me to vote.
    I suspect the bigger fear here is not fraud but a system that does not fit the political and media infra structure.

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  5. 5. greenhome123 6:15 pm 10/23/2012

    Similar to how we can e-file our taxes online, we should also be able to e-file our vote online. This would prevent votes from being counted, and encourage more voting by making it easier for people to vote. And, I believe election day should be changed to April 15th, so that people can e-file their taxes and e-file their vote at the same time. Who’s with me?

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  6. 6. northernguy 12:55 am 10/25/2012

    I don’t want voting to become equivalent to “liking” a comment on some thread or “liking” some candidate in some election by clicking on the right symbol.

    Yes it is a hassle to physically cast your vote. If you aren’t sufficiently invested in the process to participate then don’t.

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