Ohio's Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, has been under fire now for months from Democrats. They’re angry, particularly, about his moves to limit early voting hours across the state—especially those on the weekend before the election. Poor and minority voters rely on the expanded hours. Black churches have used the last Sunday before election day to bring voters to the polls; low-income voters often have inflexible work schedules and childcare demands at home. After a lengthy court battle, Husted has now authorized county election boards to offer hours in the three days before election day. But he did limit early voting hours in the weeks before, with fewer evening hours and no weekend hours.
But Husted insists he's no 2012 version of Katherine Harris or Ken Blackwell. He's repeatedly defended himself by pointing out that he's also done something to make voting easier for all Ohioans: expand mail-in voting. Anyone in the state can vote by mail and this year, for the first time, the secretary of state sent applications for absentee ballots to every voter on the rolls. People have responded. Husted's office has been churning out press releases touting the million-plus voters who've taken advantage of the offer and requested mail-in ballots. It sounds like a great thing. Ohio's elections have been plagued by Election Day controversies; in 2004, in particular, lines were extremely long, particularly in minority polling places, and many worried that a lot of voters, after hours in line, gave up and went home. Mail-in ballots will take some of the pressure off of what's sure to be a tense November 6 in the state that could swing the election to either President Obama or Mitt Romney.
But there's a hitch—a big one. A new report from the Voting Technology Project, a collaborative research effort by MIT and Caltech, shows that votes cast by mail are significantly less likely to be counted than those cast in person. The report has serious implications given recent trends toward more and more mail-in ballots. Voting by mail has grown from less than 10 percent of ballots cast in 2000 to 17 percent in 2010. Two states, Oregon and Washington, conduct elections exclusively through the mail, while several others, including California and Colorado, allow voters to become permanent absentee voters, automatically getting a mail-in ballot every year.
That doesn’t mean the system is humming along. In 2008, 800,000 mail-in ballots were rejected by election workers for one problem or another. Another 3.9 million were requested by voters but never received, while 2.9 million were sent to voters but never made it back to election officials. In total, as many 7.6 million votes, 21 percent of those requested, may have “leaked” out of the system before the votes were counted. It’s still the case that the total number of mail-in ballots cast and rejected is small—around 2 percent of those requested—but the gap in accuracy is certainly cause for concern. And in a tight election, those uncounted ballots could make a difference.
“It continues to surprise me,” says Charles Stewart, a political science professor at MIT and one of the authors of the report, ”that with all of the growth in voting by mail, that there has been surprisingly little curiosity about how accurate the voting mode is when you vote by mail.”
It's ironic, too, given how much effort has gone into improving voting techology in the last decade. Since the 2000 presidential election and the controversies over faulty voting machines and poorly designed ballots, most reformers have focused on fixing the technology problems. Under the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, voting machines must now alert voters if they’ve skipped voting for one office or if they’ve selected more than one candidate for an office. Because the voter is physically in the polling place, it’s easy for them to correct their ballot. The reforms have been extremely successful; Stewart estimates that as many as 1.5 million votes will be counted this year because a machine didn’t break. Problems with mail-in ballots, he says, “probably undercut the gains we have made by buying better voting machines.”
Mailing in your vote requires a series of steps. In most states, after filling out your preferences, you sign an outside envelope and then put the actual ballot into a second envelope to ensure secrecy. Once it’s mailed and arrives at the central counting facility, elections workers verify that your signature matches the one on file and then separate the actual ballot from the envelope with your signature—meaning no one knows who cast which vote. From there everything is scanned and counted.
The trouble is, there are a multitude of ways the process can get screwed up. First there’s the U.S. Mail; the ballot could get lost and never arrive at the facility—or be delayed and arrive too late to be counted. If it does get there on time, your signature might now look different from the one you had when you registered; elderly people, who are the most likely to use mail-in ballots, can face problems if their signatures get shaky. Even if your ballot makes it to the scanning stage, any mistake you’ve made, like accidentally filling in bubbles for two candidates, can cause the vote for that office not to count. Unlike with in-person voting, there’s no way to alert an individual that there’s a problem with his or her ballot; once it’s at the counting stage, no one knows who cast which ballot.
But while mail-in ballots appear to have significant problems, Americans clearly like having voting options and it’s easier for election workers if everything doesn’t come down to a single day of immense pressure. That’s why the best solution is to expand in-person early voting, giving people as many hours and days as possible to cast their ballots.
Americans are twice as likely to vote early now as they were in 2004. However, while mail-in voting has grown steadily, in-person early voting has only expanded in fits and starts. In 2000, only 3 percent of voters did so through showing up at polling places early. While that rose to 13 percent in 2008, it was down to 8 percent in 2010. By expanding early voting options, states would take pressure off elections officials while still making the most of improvements to voting technology. Certainly states should think twice before moving to mail-in only elections or allowing people to automatically get an absentee ballot each year.
It’s a lesson Ohio may have to learn this year. Husted may have created new problems when he decided to focus on mail-in ballots while decreasing options for early voting in several urban counties. As the Cincinnati Enquirer reported Thursday, 1.4 million Ohio voters have asked for absentee ballots, but so far state officials have only received 619,000 back. Those numbers are likely to grow. The gap is disturbing. Many who requested mail-in ballots but either did not fill them out or never received them may show up at the polls and instead fill out provisional ballots. (The provisional ballots allow workers to make sure voters aren't voting twice.) With the presidential election extremely close—and with a good chance that Ohio will be the deciding state in determining who wins—election workers could easily wind up scrambling to validate and count those provisional ballots. Meanwhile, there could be litigation around the mail-in ballots that were not received in time or were rejected. There’s plenty of possibility for drama.
The heat on Husted may not end any time soon.