WASHINGTON — More than 500,000 mail-in ballots went uncounted during the 2020 primary season nationwide, many of them because they were deemed incomplete or because they arrived too late, an issue that's only poised to get worse as the whole country attempts to cast their ballots by mail for the November 3 general election.
A record number of voters are expected to stay away from traditional polling places because of the coronavirus pandemic and instead cast their ballots by mail. However, much of the novelty is lost on Washington, where voting by mail has been common practice for years.
Still, it never hurts to refresh yourself on the basics of mail-in voting, especially in advance of such an important election.
In Washington state:
Ballots are automatically mailed to all registered voters. Voters do not need to file requests to receive their ballots.
Ballots must be postmarked or dropped off by November 3.
Voters can vote in person if they would like, and currently all polling centers say they plan to remain open.
As for voting registration, Washington residents have until October 26 to register online. Voters can also register to vote in person as late as November 3, or election day. Online registration can be done here.
Finally, state officials want to remind everyone: vote early if possible.
"Remember, November 3 is the deadline, not the day set aside for voting. Voting early or voting even two or three days before November 3 will take tremendous strain off of our election system," writes Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson. "During the August 4 Primary Election, which had a record setting turnout, 80% of the ballots at our ballot drop boxes were returned during the final 48hours of the election. Depositing your ballot a day or two earlier will be a huge help during November, when we expect to process 460,000 ballots."
And that's 460,00 ballots in just Pierce County alone. With guidelines changing in many states, more than 80 percent of all American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 election, by far the most in U.S. history.
That’s a result of 20 states loosening vote-by-mail laws this year due to the pandemic. As of Aug. 25, data from The Washington Post indicates 100 million people will be eligible to vote by mail either with no “excuse” or citing fears of the coronavirus as a reason. Among them, 51 million people will be automatically sent a ballot in the mail and 44 million people sent an application for a mail-in ballot.
Only six states still require a valid excuse other than coronavirus fears to vote absentee. Five states had already conducted elections solely by mail even before the pandemic.
But will your vote actually count?
In the primary election, a study by the Post showed 534,731 ballots were nixed in 23 states, and NPR found even more — 558,032 in 30 states — in a similar study. In New York City alone, more than 84,000 mail-in ballots were tossed and lawsuits were filed over the legitimacy of the outcomes of some close races.
Using Pierce County as an example again: in the county alone 3,659 ballots were rejected in the primary election earlier this year. Of those, 2,140 were because the ballots arrived late, postmarked or mailed in after the due date. Another 1,089 had mismatched signatures. Both are good reminders to remember to be careful this election season, cast your vote on time and make sure you check off all the necessary boxes before sending it in.
Millions of people will cast their ballots by mail for the first time in the 2020 general election. Pew Research numbers show the number of people who vote by mail had already been on a sharp increase for years. In 2016, more than 20 percent of voters nationwide voted by mail, a total of about 27 million.
Of the 14.6 million votes cast by mail in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, officials found just 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people, according to Electronic Registration Information Center data analyzed by the Post. That equates to a 0.0025 percent fraud rate. The Brennan Center for Justice has described vote-by-mail fraud as “infinitesimally small.”
Why are people concerned about a legitimate election with so few documented cases of actual fraud?
Partly, it’s problems with the U.S. Postal Service. But equally troublesome are problems that exposed themselves during the primaries. The Post data shows more ballots were rejected in 23 states than the number of absentee ballot rejections reported in the 2016 general election nationwide, in large part because of mistakes in filling out the ballots.
That means a lot more opportunities for inexperienced mail-in voters to make mistakes — which Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, says could pose a significant problem in the rejection rate come November.
“Experience matters,” Smith told the Post. “If you lack experience voting by mail, the odds of you casting a ballot that doesn’t count will go up.”
President Donald Trump, who voted by mail in the Florida primary and praised his home state’s absentee voting system, has often said — with no supporting data — that the upcoming election will be the “most rigged” in American history due to the amount of mail-in ballots expected to be cast.
Legal cases are ongoing involving the Trump administration and several states over mail-in voting.
Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said if the election between Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden is close, the mail-in ballots will create “a mess.”
“The two campaigns will be arguing over nonconforming ballots, which is going to run up against voters’ beliefs in fair play,” Stewart told the Post.
There’s also growing concern over the governmental entity tasked with handling the influx of mail-in ballots.
Under Trump, the Postal Service has come under fire for increasingly slow service, mail backlogs and planned changes that some have feared will have an effect on their ability to handle the expected massive increase of mail-in ballots this year.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told senators on Capitol Hill in recent testimony he was unaware of certain changes at the Postal Service until they caused a public uproar. But he also said there are no plans to restore mailboxes or high-speed sorting machines that have been removed. His testimony raised fresh questions about how the Postal Service will ensure timely delivery of ballots for the November election.
In some places such as Chicago, vote-by-mail drop boxes will be installed so voters can avoid the lines at the polls and not have to worry about Postal Service issues.
However, here in Washington mail-in voting has been the norm for years, and officials say they're confident that, at the very least, the evergreen state's vote will go smoothly.
“In our decades-long experience with mail-in voting, we remain confident in our partnership with the U.S. Postal Service and its ability to continue delivering the same outstanding service to voters, the Office of the Secretary of State, and Washington’s 39 county election officials,” said Kim Wyman, Washington Secretary of State.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.