The 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