Vote by Mail will decide the 2020 election. Trump and 50,000 of his armed backers will try to say otherwise.
But VBM could turn us forever from hackable touch screens to paper ballots. To make that happen, election protection activists must overcome Vote by Mail’s many vulnerabilities to make mail-in paper ballots an instrument of real democracy.
The odds are long, but the chances are real.
To follow an ongoing compendium of stories on this election as they unfold, go to the Election Protection portal at the Free Press website. You can also join our national COVID-19 Emergency Zoom call on election protection this Tuesday 5:00-6:30 p.m. Eastern Time (2:00-3:30 Pacific Time) by writing to me for the link.
In the Big Picture, Trump loudly hates VBM. But his followers LOVE it in states they control.
Harvey Wasserman discusses vote by mail in the second part of his interview with Politics Done Right
They fear Vote by Mail because it might deliver actual ballots to the Millennials and minorities who’ll decide this election, and it might actually lead to them being fairly counted.
US senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden have proposed a bill to support VBM nationwide. It includes key funding and deadline provisions that are essential to its proper use.
But Trump’s Republicans have already pledged $20 million to hire 50,000 “volunteers” to “patrol” the polls this fall. Many are likely to be carrying guns. Their mission will be to intimidate and assault “suspicious” or “fraudulent” voters, i.e. citizens of youth, color, and limited means.
To neutralize them, a half-million democracy activists must come out before, during, and after election day. They must be “armed” with a firm grip on voting with VBM’s many challenges in each individual state and county. (Our weekly Zooms — upcoming on Tuesday — discuss this in great detail.)
The election protectors must be prepared to stand across from these intimidators at the polls and make voters feel safe and protected. They must safeguard paper ballots arriving in the mail, make sure they are safely stored, and guarantee that they’re fairly counted.
Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawai have long voted by mail. So will California this fall. (Trump has complained that with VBM “no Republican in this country will ever win another election,” but a California Republican Congressional candidate just did.)
All states have long provided absentee ballots. But this fall most will be severely stretched to handle massively increased VBM volume, and to deal with a system being used on this scale for the first time in their history.
Anyone committed to a fair 2020 election must consider immediately joining local election boards, becoming a poll worker and/or a vote counter, etc. Above all, they must know every detail of how voting will proceed in every state and county.
Here is some of what the election protection movement must overcome in just five months:
1. Printing and Publishing
Paper VBM ballots must first be designed, printed, and published. Ballots can be extremely complex, especially where referenda are involved. Accidental typos and deliberate manipulations are common.
The infamous “butterfly ballots” printed in south Florida in 2000 induced thousands of elderly voters to choose Pat Buchanan when they thought they were voting for Al Gore. Absentee ballots mailed to voters in southwestern Ohio in 2004 omitted the name of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Democratic primary ballots in California 2016 and 2020 omitted Bernie Sanders, costing him more than a half-million votes, according to Greg Palast.
Legitimate complications can arise when candidates drop out, with other technicalities as deadlines approach, or with simple incompetence or overwork.
Election protection activists must proofread all ballots BEFORE they go to the printing houses.
They must also guarantee that enough paper ballots are printed to enfranchise all voters slated to receive them by mail, and to be available at voting stations for all new registrants and for other unforeseen challenges.
Hackable touchscreens must NOT be allowed to swing this election on the excuse that enough paper ballots are not available.
Computerized machines that may be needed to print out ballots in multiple languages at polling stations require heavy independent scrutiny and mechanical maintenance.
Ink specifications must verified so ballots will be readable in electronic imaging machines. Barcoded ballots can be especially susceptible to disarray from the use of inferior printing materials.
Once printed, the ballots must be carefully protected during delivery from the print houses to the election boards, and then be safely stored, with clear chain of custody.
2. Protecting the Voter Registration Rolls
Researcher Greg Palast estimates some 17 million Americans have been stripped from the voter rolls based on age, race and class. Andrea Miller’s People Demanding Action is among those working on this. Stripping the voter rolls has become a huge potential pitfall in the coming election, and will be discussed in detail in a future report.
3. Who Gets a Ballot & How?
The most democratic VBM procedure is for the state and county election boards to simply send ballots to all registered voters.
But in Ohio and elsewhere, partisan legislators, secretaries of state, governors, etc. have contrived to first send a postcard ... then (maybe) an application ... then (maybe) a ballot. All must meet firm deadlines.
Such flimsy, complex, time-consuming procedures add to the risk of document(s) being lost in the mail, ignored at home, trashed at the election board, etc. Where inner city voters are involved, that seems in many cases to be the partisan purpose.
This multi-layered process can mean many citizens get no ballot, or get them too late to mail back in time to be accepted and counted.
All democracy activists in all states and counties need thorough knowledge of these procedures. Their ability to monitor and act on them could decide the fall election’s outcome.
4. The Military, Diplomats, and Other Overseas Americans
The US military votes by mail, or electronically. There are always widespread reports that some officers may illegally intimidate soldiers into voting a certain way. Deadlines and counting procedures can be problematic.
Former diplomat Jennifer Roberts says others voting from afar include overseas workers with the US Commercial Service, USDA, USIA, AID, and more; corporate executives and contractors working overseas with international companies; students studying abroad; teachers. Hundreds of thousands of ballots can be involved. Unless protected, these votes can be lost, stolen or manipulated.
5. Will Return Applications & Ballots Be Pre-stamped or Mass Harvested?
Mailed-in applications and ballots require pre-paid envelopes. To do otherwise is to levy a poll tax. Democracy advocates must guarantee voters get a stamp for mailing in their ballots, or help in hand-delivering them to VBM boxes or the election boards themselves.
But “ballot-harvesting” (i.e. the mass gathering of ballots) has already been linked to criminal fraud in North Carolina and elsewhere.
Gray areas include “ballot parties” in elder/nursing homes conducted by partisan activists, where witnessing and/or notarizing can be accomplished.
Overall, the complex and often corrupted ways ways VBM ballots go to voters and back to election boards and voting stations demands extreme vigilance from those who would protect the franchise.
6. Will There Be a Postal Service?
Technically, if the US Postal Service is gone or compromised, ballots could go both ways with UPS, FedEx, or other private services. But prices would certainly be affected.
Nor do UPS & FedEx deliver first-class mail to rural areas. Many Indigenous, impoverished and homeless have P.O. boxes, not street addresses. FedEx/UPS would be unlikely to handle them, or senior centers, or those in prison, or students on campus, etc.
Post Office box addresses are also problematic for voter registration where election boards require a street address.
In sum: a destroyed/undermined USPS will pose huge challenges to a fair VBM election.
7. Where Will the Ballots Go, and When?
VBM ballots mostly need to be returned to election boards, whose offices can be few and far between. Some may offer special drop boxes, which will require special security to keep them from being stolen and/or destroyed.
Ohio’s 2020 primary featured a single election center per each of the state’s 88 counties. The one in Franklin County (population: 1.5 million) was in an abandoned Kohl’s department store in a remote corner of Columbus. There were no drop boxes. Long lines (mostly in cars) built up through election day with voters trying to drop off their ballot or to obtain one. (Rural counties had no such problems.)
To properly serve the voting public, election centers must open at least two weeks before the election. Plentiful, secure drop boxes must be well-advertised and easy to find for a fair VBM outcome.
8. Chain of Custody
Convenient, decentralized voting centers should be universally available two or three weeks prior to election day. But those ballots demand serious protection.
Chain of control must be clearly established so ballots in certain key areas don’t wind up in rivers and trash burners.
9. Voting Centers
Most VBM voting goes without face-to-face exposure. But well-advertised and convenient voting centers are still needed.
For two or three weeks prior to election day, at universally known voting centers, citizens should be able to pick up and/or drop off ballots, register, consult with poll workers to straighten out registration issues, etc. Centers should be open and staffed with long hours to avoid long lines that cause deadly back-ups, and to provide services in a timely, accurate, friendly way. If Trump does mobilize thousands of armed thugs, election protection activists must be at the voting centers to meet them.
10. The Surrender Rule
The “surrender rule” requires that voters who do receive their paper ballots in the mail but want to vote at a voter center bring the ballot in with them to use to vote, or to “surrender” for a different kind of ballot.
Those who show up without the ballot that’s been sent to them will almost certainly be forced to vote provisionally, meaning their ballot will likely be pitched in the trash.
11. Election Protection at the Voting Centers
Trump’s hired “volunteers” are likeliest to threaten intimidation and violence at the voting centers. Nonviolent election protection activists must be present in great numbers to neutralize the expected Trump assault.
12. Will Vote by Mail Mean Universal Paper Ballots?
True election protection requires that all voting centers provide paper ballots for hand-marking by those capable of doing so.
Voting machines can serve those with special needs. But hand-markable paper ballots must be available for all those who want them and who don’t want or need to vote on hackable electronic machines.
Especially during this pandemic, touchscreens can spread infection. So election protection activists must be present to guarantee that paper ballots are universally available both by mail and at voting stations to all those who are eligible and capable of casting them.
13. When Will the Ballots Be Mailed Out?
Deadlines for ballot mail-out, postmarking, and/or receipt can vary widely. The courts defeated attempts in Wisconsin’s 2020 primary to extend postmarking deadlines for returned VBM ballots. But many ballots arriving with no postmark were apparently accepted for counting in some precincts, while being rejected in others.
Thus an entire election could be turned by an arbitrary decision by a single county official. A US Supreme Court decision left some 30,000 ballots in play in this spring’s Wisconsin primary.
In many elections over the years, thousands of ballots were never actually sent to voters, or were sent too late to come back on time. Thousands have been stolen after being sent. Thousands more never arrived for various reasons. All this demands extreme scrutiny from election protection activists.
Guaranteeing timely delivery and return of legitimate ballots is at the heart of election protection and the VBM system.
14. When Are the Ballots Due Back?
Deadlines vary from state-to-state and county-to-county for when a ballot must be postmarked and/or received to be counted.
With this year’s expected massive influx of VBM paper ballots (especially in states that haven’t done VBM before, or which are corrupted with partisan legislatures), many state and local deadlines for reception and final tabulation are unrealistic.
In Florida 2000 and 2018, tens of thousands of votes were simply trashed because arbitrary counting and recounting deadlines weren’t met. Such deadlines have had decisive impacts on races for the presidency, governorships, US Senate seats, and more.
Election protection demands litigation to make deadlines for returns and reporting as realistic as possible.
15. Voter ID, Signature Verification, and Witness & Notarization Requirements
Some states have imposed arbitrary photo ID and other requirements that can allow election boards to trash as many ballots as they want, in highly discriminatory ways.
First-time Wisconsin voters must submit a photo ID to get a ballot. In Texas a hunting or gun license gets you a ballot, but a student ID does not. Photo IDs and other screens can be used to thin the voter rolls by race, gender, age, class, etc.
A signature on an electronic device at a motor vehicle bureau or voting station can be a wavy line rendered by a fingernail or a stylus. But a signature on another type of document might be entirely different.
Many states have set demands for notarization, one or two witnesses, etc. In some elder homes, where voters are immobile, signatures from employees and attendants are banned, making getting a witness virtually impossible.
16. Internet Voting, Vote by Phone, and Digital Divide
Voter registration and voting by phone or internet are all being proposed in some states. Theft, manipulation and disappearance are possible side effects. Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004 were both significantly turned by electronic manipulation.
Rural, elderly, uneducated, and low-income households can be disenfranchised by their lack of computer/internet capability.
17. Early Counting
In addition to the challenges of safely storing them, early VBM ballots could tempt locals officials to do early counting, and then to leak results (real or imagined) that could affect the remainder of the election. This must not be allowed to happen!
18. Counted How?
Paper ballots must be counted either by hand or machine or both, either as mail-in ballots or when deposited in person at election centers.
This year’s volume will be immense. Hand-counts could require days or weeks, especially in a time of social distancing. Sufficient work forces may not be readily available for timely tallies, especially in urban centers.
Electronic ballot image machines can convert inserted paper ballots to electronic images which are then readily readable for a quick vote count. The original ballot itself is preserved for a hard, reliable recount if necessary.
According to John Brakey, such machines are already available in more than 80 percent of the nation’s voting centers.
Many election protection activists worry about these machines being hacked or breaking down, accidentally or otherwise.
If they preserve the actual paper ballots, recounts could be made fair and reliable. But for ballot imaging machines to work, they must be turned on, which many local officials refuse to do.
19. (Re)Counted by When?
Even if ballot imaging is used for a fast initial vote count, recounts using the preserved paper ballots are inevitable. And reporting deadlines which must be met to validate the (re)counts vary widely.
In southern Florida 2000, the US Supreme Court infamously stopped the process in urban areas, making George W. Bush president. In Ohio 2004, the legally-mandated recount never happened. US Senate and governor’s races in Florida 2018 were decided when dense southern counties couldn’t meet recount deadlines.
In 2020, election protection activists must guarantee that thorough, reliable recounts happen in a timely manner.
20. The Six, Twelve or Eighteen Swing States
There is widespread speculation on which key swing states will make the definitive difference in the final 2020 Electoral College vote count. National Popular Vote says it could all boil down to Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Other swing states in play may include Minnesota, Ohio, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada and Iowa. Given Trump’s volatility and the instability of our national scene, even Georgia, Texas, Kansas, Montana, Kentucky, and West Virginia could become critical.
In all of them, how the ballots are mailed out, brought back in and counted will be key.
Five months remain to produce a workable VBM infrastructure with reliable standards and procedures, created in many states this year virtually from scratch.
Mundane stuff like warehousing, security, registration checking, tabling, ballot collection, counting, and other details could decide the fate of the Earth.
VBM’s challenges are daunting, but reasonably clear. They’ll turn on the strength of grassroots election protection organizations in each key state, and how quickly they can get up and running.
Just weeks ago, few could see how thoroughly COVID-19 would demand the birth of a nationwide Vote by Mail system.
But its effective implementation and protection — state by state, county by county — will depend on an unprecedented national grassroots movement dedicated to a fair outcome for the 2020 election. That movement has just five months to produce a system, mostly based on Vote by Mail, that will reasonably reflect the will of the People.
And it will apparently have to be done in the face of intense, well-paid opposition, much it heavily armed.