Written by Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy, Assistant lecturer, Université Paris Nanterre – Université Paris Lumières
What is clear is that the increase in the number of ballots sent by mail due to the Covid-19 crisis will certainly pose logistical problems, and the counting process will be long and complex. In this context, it is not fraud that is to be feared but rather a delay in the announcement of the results. This in turn could lead to exploitation of the political situation by the current president.
So how does mail-in voting really work in the United States and what difficulties may arise during the November 3 election?
Beyond the possible problems of routing postal ballots through the Post Office, it is above all the processing of these ballots that will complicate the American election. While some states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Utah, plus Washington, DC) have long practiced absentee voting almost exclusively, because of the Covid-19 crisis, most states will make mail-in ballots a priority this year. However, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), some states have not put in place adequate measures to deal with the increase in demand for mail-in voting – for example, having a sufficient number of election officials available.
Each state has different electoral rules, including those regarding the counting of absentee ballots. However, the key requirement of the system is checking signatures. There is no national identification card in the United States, and according to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City, up to 11% of US citizens – more than 21 million people – do not have a government-issued photo identification such as a drivers licence.
The voter signature-verification puzzle
When verifying mail-in ballots, the first step is checking that the signature on the envelope containing the ballot to see that it matches the elector’s signature recorded at the time of registration. In some states, this database has not been updated and the signature may no longer correspond to that of the elector’s current signature, which may have evolved over time. Some states may also require other measures such as the signature of a witness or a notary.
According to the BPC, only 20 states notify the voters of any issues on the returned ballot envelope, (such as a missing or mismatched signature) and then allow voters to correct any signature deficiencies by returning a form to their county election committee (a process called “curing”).
Overall, the rejection rate for absentee ballots appears to be low: According to the US Election Assistance Commission, it is less than 1%. But a Washington Post analysis of voting in the state of Georgia in the 2018 midterm elections shows that it can be as high as 3%, while the BPC found a rate of 9.6% in New Jersey in a May 2020 special election.
However small the numbers may be, it disproportionately affects minority and primary voters, who often vote for Democratic candidates. it is important to keep in mind that Donald Trump won the 2016 election by less than 80,000 votes in three states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan).
The second step in the process: ballots are removed from the envelope, sorted and placed in batches, sometimes using a ballot scanner. These “high-speed tabulation” machines reduce counting time wherever they are used, but the manual part of the process is still time-consuming. To make sure votes will be counted in time, some states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas) will allow these ballots to be processed prior to Election Day. But 15 states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, will have to wait until November 3 to count any mailed ballots. Whatever the state, all ballots must be counted by December 14, when the future president must be officially designated.
Contrary to claims by the president, it is not the risk of fraud that is the problem but questions related to logistics and the state laws that affect them. Moreover, for fraud to have an impact on the elections’ outcome, it would have to be massive and organized, which would make it visible.
To reassure voters, some states, such as North Carolina, have set up a tracking system that makes it possible to follow your ballot, as one follows an online order. To counter the risk of voting twice, some states allow an elector to cast a provisional vote while waiting to determine whether it should be counted. The president has only muddied the waters further by encouraging his supports to vote twice to test the system.
Suspense and tensions following election day
It is therefore possible, and even probable, that there will be no final results on election night, or even on the morning of November 4. But there will certainly be unofficial results the night of the election. Preliminary results are usually based on precinct reporting and are likely to be much less reliable than in previous elections. This is all the more likely since, according to the BPC, 50% to 70% of the ballots could be mail-in ballots. A majority of these will likely be used by Democrats, particularly in key states. According to Fox News, in the key state of Florida, 47.5% of absentee ballots are cast by Democrats and only 32% by Republicans. In Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the number of Democratic mail-in ballots is three times higher than Republican numbers. Only Michigan would be the exception, with more Republican mail-in ballots.
If these numbers hold, it is likely that the Democratic vote will be underestimated in the preliminary results. In the absence of a clear result on election night, Donald Trump could try to claim victory and dismiss as fraudulent definitive numbers that indicate that Biden won the election.
Last June, the Transition Integrity Project, a group of academics, journalists, experts and former public servants, conducted several simulations. Their conclusion was that only a landslide for Joe Biden would result in a relatively orderly transfer of power. All other scenarios involved a major political crisis and potentially street violence. So while Trump points at mail-in ballots as a potential source of fraud, Biden and Democratic officials at the national, state and county levels are doing everything they can to ensure that every mailed ballot counts.
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