This is the kind of stuff that confuses people.
What won’t help is the major delay in results for some primary races in New York, people not receiving ballots for Tuesday’s primary in Michigan and other snarls and hiccups we’ve seen through the primary season.
Colorado, Washington and Oregon have conducted vote-by-mail elections in the past. Hawaii and Utah had planned to hold a vote-by-mail election before the pandemic struck.
I talked to Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at Brookings and the founder of their Center on Effective Public Management.
Our conversation, conducted by phone and slightly edited for flow, is below.
Suppressing his own vote!
WHAT MATTERS: What’s the first thing people need to know about the current debate over mail-in voting?
KAMARCK: People including the President until recently conflate what are called universal mail-in ballot states with absentee ballot systems.
There are only seven states in the United States that are going to use universal mail-in ballots for the November election.
They are Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, California, Hawaii and the District of Columbia. All the ones we give As to.
First of all, the President has gotten into his head that somehow these states are corrupt and this system is corrupt. Not one of these states has had an allegation of corruption. Not one. Oregon has used this for 20 years and hasn’t had a contested election, so I don’t know where the hell he’s getting that from.
The rest of the states in the union have absentee ballot provisions. Every state has absolutely valid provisions And as you saw from our map some are easier to access than others. That’s why we graded them from A to F.
What he’s doing is he’s suppressing his own goddamn vote! It’s just the stupidest thing I have ever seen in my life.
Be ready for election night to last a month
WHAT MATTERS: What’s one thing everyone needs to be ready for as a result of all the mail-in voting?
KAMARCK: It sets us up for a very long election night or election week.
Because what’s going to happen is the vote on election night may or may not — probably will not — be reflective of the total vote …
Twenty states are now accepting absentee ballots that arrive as late as 10 days after Election Day.
So in other words, they have to be postmarked on Election Day. But if they arrive five days, six days, seven days later, they’re going to be counted.
And this, this is a new wrinkle. Usually you have 1 to 5% of ballots are absentee ballots. Usually it doesn’t make a difference in the outcome of the race. … My guess is we’re going to have 50% absentee ballots. That’s my estimate from what happened in the primaries, is we’re going to 50/50.
Can the states handle this?
WHAT MATTERS: Is the US able to handle a massive uptick in vote by mail?
KAMARCK: Yes it is. And the reason it is is that every state has had a practice run in the primary.
So they are working hard on this. Now, handling it now it may take longer to count these things, but they are able to handle it.
KAMARCK: We looked at a series of variables that all related to ease of voting absentee. And, for instance, there were some states that require you to have a notary notarize your absentee ballot. Well if there’s no need to do that — and obviously as you can imagine tracking down the notary is a big pain in the neck whenever you have to do it and that’s very bad — that definitely cuts down on absolutely valid use. Many states are moving away from that. There’s only a handful of states that do that. But we took points off.
We had a point system, we took points off if you had to have a notary. And we gave points if all you needed was the signature of a registered voter.
Is the system safe?
WHAT MATTERS: How is the system secure if it simply requires a signature?
KAMARCK: States match signatures. They’ve got a signature on your voter registration, which they keep on file. Some states actually have technology that matches signatures …
And this is another place where Trump is out of his mind. The ballots are usually printed county by county. They’re on specific kinds of paper. They’re in a specific format. Sometimes they’ve got barcodes on them. In other words, the notion that somebody could go out and massively create a bunch of fake ballots and send them to fake voters who weren’t real people who didn’t have signatures that matched their voter registration. That’s really hard …
So this whole notion that this is vulnerable to fraud just doesn’t hold water.
Prior to the pandemic the biggest worry about our election apparatus was that Russians or other foreigners would hack into the election systems and alter the vote.
Ironically, before the election, 22 states had moved to adopt paper ballots so that there could be a verifiable paper trail in the case of a recount.
As we move now to all absentee ballots, essentially we have a really, really good paper trail because it’s an absentee ballot with a signature, etcetera etcetera.
It’s hard to hack into that. Absentee ballots are counted in large rooms, which are secured by guards in the state capital or the state election board headquarters. So Boris may find it easy to hack into the transmission of results. He’s not going to find it very easy to get in the damn room where they’re counting the ballots.
Who is allowed in that room? Election officials and a representative of each political party.
It’s not like, you know, they’re going to let the Republican in the room and keep the Democrat out, right?
Those representatives of political parties are usually lawyers and they are armed to the gills to run right to court. And they’re gonna run right to court the minute anything funny shows up.
This will not be flawless
WHAT MATTERS: In Michigan, in New York, in Connecticut and elsewhere, vote by mail has not been flawless in the primary process. Should people be worried about those problems that we’ve seen with ballots not arriving on time, or should they just accept that as a part of the new system?
KAMARCK: Well I think the answer is yes and no. The bad news is that every state is going to be going through a volume of ballots that they’ve never had before. So for many, many states this is going to be all brand new and stuff is gonna happen, right? There will be ballots that are arriving late, etcetera …
The good news is that the the primaries were a dry run. And states learned things in the primaries. One of the most important things they learned is that … you have to have some sort of backup system.
Provisional ballots. In some states, the people realize you need to have more in-person voting places than they thought they needed. So say you apply for your absentee ballot and you don’t get it by Election Day.
You need to be able to go to a polling place and vote, and one of the things that happened in so many states in the primaries was that they didn’t have enough polling places because they saw the volume of absentee ballot requests and then they thought, ‘Oh we don’t need a lot of voting places.’
Well it turns out they maybe didn’t need as many as they usually do. But they needed a heck of a lot more than they had because people … who didn’t get their ballots wanted to go vote in person.
Let’s say Covid had just hit in August. Then we really wouldn’t be very prepared for this. At least we’re a little bit better prepared.
Can the US Postal Service handle this?
WHAT MATTERS: What’s your assessment of whether the Postal Service can deal with this deluge of ballots?
KAMARCK: I think it will be slow. I think there will be — it’ll take time to get ballots in.
I think a lot of people who know who they’re going to vote for are going to vote early to make sure that their ballot gets in.
The second thing we see states doing — and we’re up 20 states now — they are accepting valid ballots after Election Day. And that is specifically to account for this problem. … And we gave them good grades obviously for doing that.
So that’s one adjustment. My expectation is that more states are gonna adopt that so that if the mail is slow, they’ll still get their ballots counted.
Election Day starts in one month
KAMARCK: Well it’s too late for North Carolina. But no, it’s not too late for states to make changes. And one of the reasons we’re updating our score card every Friday is because states are in fact making changes, you know, as we speak. I’d say there’s probably another month or so for states to make changes and then it’s pretty locked in.
The other thing that’s going on by the way is there are a lot of court cases. So the Republican National Committee has been fighting this, trying to follow in Trump’s footsteps, although they’ve not been very successful. … I think the courts need to act expeditiously and make decisions here so that come around Labor Day everybody knows how to vote in their given state.
The media’s special responsibility
WHAT MATTERS: Is there anything else you think people need to know?
KAMARCK: I’ll tell you this one last thing.
I think it is very important that the media not set expectations that we’re gonna have everything decided on election night.
Because frankly, if they try to call this too fast and then the absentee ballots change and the outcome changes in some state or the election is close, then it plays right into the hands of the conspiracy theorists, including the President, who is trying to argue that the election is going to be wrecked and incorrect.
And so the media plays a big role here … the worst thing the media can do is jump to conclusions. If it’s really clear, if it’s a landslide, then they probably can call it on election night. But short of that, they’ve got to be really careful about calling the election.