Absentee Voting by Mail Has Many Safeguards

by Rosanna Bencoach

In a recent piece in Bacon’s Rebellion, “COVID-19 No Justification for Mail-In Voting,” Brian Glass questioned the security of mail-in voting by citing controversies in other states during previous elections.

The underlying issues and outcomes varied but did not cast doubt on the entire system. As Dick Hall-Sizemore commented:

Voting by mail is not inherently subject to greater levels of fraud. The states of Oregon and Washington have had voting by mail for years. In the 2016 election, there were 54 causes of voter fraud in Oregon. Washington experienced 142 cases in the 2018 election. There have to be safeguards built in to voting by mail or absentee voting programs. For example, the idea of one person collecting the votes of many others in order to take them to the polling place (“ballot harvesting”) easily lends itself to fraud and should not be allowed.

In Virginia, absentee voting is conducted by mail and in the Voter Registrar’s office, and must begin by the 45th day before each general election or primary. Absentee voting requires an application from the voter, stating a legally acceptable reason to vote absentee (travel, illness, etc.)

A few states automatically send a mail ballot to every voter or conduct elections entirely by mail. Other states have periods of “early voting” when a ballot can be cast at a central location without providing a reason.

The process in Virginia will change significantly this fall because of bills passed by the 2020 General Assembly. But for now, let’s look at the existing laws and processes.

For the June 23 primary, while local voter registrars and electoral boards have taken steps to lessen possible COVID-19 exposure for staff and voters during in-person absentee voting and on Election Day (masks, sanitizer, distance, etc.), the process is still riskier than mail voting. That’s why the state is encouraging voters in the June 23 primary, as in the recent municipal elections, to vote absentee by mail.  The state recommends using reason “2A – disability or illness” for those wishing to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. The deadline to apply for an absentee ballot is 5:00 p.m. on June 16 but applying earlier is recommended to allow enough time to receive, vote and return the ballot to be counted on Election Day. Applying online is encouraged.

To vote a mail ballot, Virginia law directs the voter to open and secretly mark the ballot, then seal it in the “oath” envelope and add his address, the date and his signature. This must all be done in the presence of a witness who signs the same envelope. For the June 23 primary, the witness requirement may be disregarded “if you believe you may not safely have a witness present while completing your ballot.”[i]

In Virginia, mail absentee ballots can only be returned to the Registrar by mail or by the voter personally. Ballots must be received by 7:00 PM on Election Day to be counted.

What other security measures are in place? Ballots received from persons who are not still registered or did not apply for a ballot, or additional ballots from the same voter are not counted. Absentee status is included on precinct pollbooks to ensure against double voting. Only official ballots can be counted. Ballots and voting equipment are secured and accounted for at every step in the process.

Absentee ballots may be tabulated electronically using state-approved election equipment, or manually using the state’s standards for hand-counting. These tasks are performed by sworn Officers of Election appointed by the local, bi-partisan Electoral Board. For the most sensitive election tasks, two Officers representing different parties are required. The process may be observed by representatives of political parties or candidates.

Law changes taking effect in time for the fall election include: any registered voter will be able to vote absentee in person or by mail without stating a reason; most voters will be able to use an annual application to request mail ballots for all elections in a calendar year; the deadline to request a mailed ballot will be four days earlier; and mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by noon on the third day after Election Day can be counted.

In the 2000 presidential election, 5.4% of Virginia’s votes were by absentee ballot; in 2016, 14.2%.[ii]  The percentage of voters marking their ballot before Election Day is expected to increase dramatically this fall as Virginia’s mail and in-person absentee system morphs into no-reason mail and “early” voting. The current mail ballot system has many safeguards which will remain in place.

Rosanna Bencoach has previously served as Policy Manager for the State Board of Elections and as a General Registrar.  She lives in Charlottesville.

[i] https://www.elections.virginia.gov/casting-a-ballot/absentee-voting/

[ii] https://www.elections.virginia.gov/resultsreports/registrationturnout-statistics/

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20 responses to “Absentee Voting by Mail Has Many Safeguards

  1. Jim, thank you for letting Ms. Bencoach post this article.

    I had been wondering what exactly is the difference between absentee voting and mail voting.

    I have actually voted absentee myself but had forgotten the process which as articulated, requires one to put the ballot in an envelope and then fill in information on the envelope and sign it.

    Now what I do not know is what happens when that ballot gets to the registrar and they have to make sure the same person did not send in two ballots… per the claim made by some who question the process.

    If a registrar office gets a few dozen mail-in ballots..no problem.. but what if they get several thousand? How do they assure that only one ballot per registered voter is counted?

    Are the envelopes the ballots go in – serialized or marked in some way that they’d be able to detect counterfeit or fraudulent ballots?

  2. Larry,
    Thanks for your nice comments. This is my first post here, and I already feel welcomed.

    In Virginia, the outer envelope for returning the mail ballot has the voter’s name and a barcode on the return address label. The returned ballot is checked in on the statewide voter registration and elections database. Occasionally, a voter contacts the office to say that a ballot was ruined (marked in error), received damaged or had not been received and they are concerned. A replacement would ballot would be sent. That’s how the office could receive two ballots from the same voter. The registrar would know that immediately when checking the ballot in. (I’ve also seen ballots sent in a year after the election they were issued for, by a voter who had not applied for the current election. Also detected during check-in, and not counted.)

    If a returned ballot is missing its label, or it has been damaged or marked through, the information on the oath envelope would be used to identify and check in the voter, if possible.

    Overseas and military voters may use an official Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB) if they believe their ballot will not be received in time. That’s not double voting. If both the the official and FWAB ballot are received, the official one is counted.

    But that also brings up the issue of the voter who sends in a ballot and has not applied for one. My best example is a couple overseas who had voted regularly, but in a particular election only one applied. Military and overseas voters can ask to receive their ballot by email. This saves one-way mailing time (often very slow international mail). The voter prints out the ballot, oath and instructions, completes it and mails it back. In one election, two ballots came back from the couple but only one had applied. As General Registrar, I contacted them to let them know who had not applied, and that there still was time for them to apply and vote, but their first ballot could not be counted. I also cautioned them to NEVER do that again. Copying a ballot is illegal and I had no choice but to refer it to the Commonwealth’s Attorney (who I believe also called them with a strong warning.)

    Ballots read and tabulated by an electronic device have coding to tell the counting machine to read them (but, of course, not connect them to any particular voter). A fraudulent ballot would be detected by the scanner, or by the feel of the paper stock. (Those emailed military/overseas ballots come in on all kinds of paper stock and sizes, but it doesn’t matter. They must be hand counted.)

    Finally, usually on election day, all these complete ballot envelopes are checked off against the final absentee list. This confirms that the ballot is there and that the voter is still registered in the locality. Any issues (such as a missing voter signature) are reviewed and the envelope is set aside for further documentation. Then the ballots are removed from the envelopes that have been verified, placed face-down, and put in a batch to be counted (now fully separated from the two envelopes to protect voter privacy).

    Hope this is useful to you. Thanks, again.

  3. Sadly, and without doubt, this description will not assuage the doubts of those who follow and believe the tweeter-in-chief.

  4. am not sure that the explanation covered exactly what happens if a voter returns an absentee ballot on election day and also votes in person. If I remember correctly the person would be flagged as having been sent an absentee ballot and would not be allowed to vote in person, unless they bring in the absentee ballot. If they say they didn’t get one, I think they are allowed to vote provisionally. Is that correct? It would seem that a same=day registration process would make it very much more cumbersome and error=prone. Finally, the elephant in the room that no one seems to be considering is how to ensure ballot secrecy when voting will be taking places in homes where abusive spouses/parents would have access to how everyone in the family voted. Seems like we are allowing a possible level of coercion that cannot take place in the controlled environment of public polling sites. I realize that can happen in all types of absentee voting, not just vote-by-mail, it just gets worse by expanding the number of such situations.

    • The poll book we use in the city will tell me if the voter requested an absentee ballot, and that person can only vote if they bring it in unopened or unmarked. If they don’t have the unused absentee ballot, they can only do a provisional ballot to be held by the registrar until all is cleared up. If they don’t clear it up, the provisional ballot is not counted.

  5. Thanks for this information. I still worry a little about the confidentiality of absentee voting. I think it would be hard for a poll worker not to see, occasionally, accidentally, how someone voted upon removing a ballot from the oath envelope. There are representatives from both parties present to prevent that from being done purposefully, but, I would think, an accidental glimpse sometimes cannot be prevented. But, in the big scheme of things, that chance is negligible. Also, most people do not make it a secret how they are voting. And, the chances of a poll worker actually knowing the absentee voter whose vote she accidentally glimpsed and actually caring how that person voted are pretty small.

    • Yes, the ability to see how someone voted has always been a possibility with absentee voting and actually with fewer ballots to process, easier.

      In an all absentee ballot system (mail in), all the precinct workers would be in one large room processing ballots and harder for individuals to be looking at ballots… much less being able to do anything nefarious.

      We’ve got to transition away from physical in-person voting unless we are going to totally revamp on that process works.

      Right now, we’re seeing people in lines extending out thousands of feet and waiting hours to vote…. that’s not acceptable.

      • Well then I would suggest all of the rest of you join up and become election officers. The big problem in GA was people wouldn’t work the election due to COVID, they then collapsed the number of precincts, and lines were inevitable. Then they introduced a new set of machines to provide a paper record for recounts. I do not expect a big turnout here June 23, but we’ll see.

        Yes, with absentees one abuse is a “helpful” partisan gets to a group of voters (nursing home?) and influences who get those votes. Might or might not turn in votes if they suspect it went the “wrong” way. I don’t think it would be a common practice, but plenty of elections hang on a handful of votes. I knew a guy who went to jail for filling out an absentee for an elderly patient and his excuse was “I knew who she wanted to vote for.” And keep in mind – both parties are capable of this behavior.

        • Would anyone suggest that “seniors” or those with health conditions volunteer to staff the polls?

          On the nursing homes – how do people in nursing homes actually register to vote in the first place? How are they “assisted” in registering if they cannot be at the registrars office?

  6. Larry asks about the poll book. I thought you had done this, Larry. It is the official list of registered voters in that precinct, with the full names and addresses and date of birth. It can be a computer printout run after the close of registration (and after the absentee request deadline) or in our case it is loaded on an Apple iPad. If somebody had voted absentee or had requested an absentee ballot it is noted on the poll book.

    Now, the geniuses at the 2020 General Assembly have produced major FUBAR into the game. People will be coming to register on election day, apparently at their home precinct (and they may not go to the right one, wasting time.) I think they changed the schedule on absentees. The requirement for photo ID has been lifted, but I think replaced with a form similar to the provisional ballot form. That will slow things down and add to the lines on November 3. And I expect I will be explaining over and over in ten days that the old law is still in force.

    Dick, there is no confidentiality with absentees. And for this election, no witness, but having seen the mail ballot (I just did it) that witness requirement is weak, and somebody could scribble something illegible and how do you check?

    Thinking very hard about Nov. 3. The day always starts with an oath to conduct an honest election. With the GA taking the process from SNAFU to FUBAR, I’m not sure that oath can be met.

    • Is it possible for dead voters to be on the pollbook?

      How about nursing home residents?

      How are physical addresses actually verified so people are voting in the correct precinct for in-person voting, like if they have moved?

      Absentee is not with respect to a given precinct BUT how are they identified for the correct voting district – which varies according to the locality, state and Federal?

      In other words, the are local district boundaries, then there are state district boundaries for HOD and Senate then there are additional district boundaries for Federal Congress.

      So for absentee ballots – all of the district boundaries are accounted for?

  7. Larry, you ask more questions than my grand kids. Online registration is possible. Mail in forms can be used to register. That can be done with people in congregate care, but one would assume most of them have been voting all along and are registered. If there is a deadline for registering before the election, the registrars can do a little checking. But with same day registration? FUBAR.

    Meant to say, hello old friend Rosanna Danna….Let me warn you, Larry is a tar baby, and if you answer two questions he comes back with five.

    I don’t reject mail ballots out of hand, but if that is the way we are going, I think more safeguards should be considered. Some two-step process, perhaps (we’ve all gotten used to entering those temporary codes to enter online accounts…).

    • yes… these are the same questions a lot of folks might have and this blog post is an opportunity for those who work in elections to present facts versus misinformation – and of course , opinion.

      One of the types of questions I’m asking is HOW do we VALIDATE information – like where the person resides… whether they are deceased, etc… as it relates to absentee, mail-in, and same-day voting.

      If there is a way to validate the same information that is required for in-person – for same-day – there is no difference. If not… I agree with you.

      But to make the FUBAR claim -you need to be expicit as to why… what specifically is the problem?

      • Well, one way we DID validate information was the photo ID requirement. That was racist, apparently. I just work the desk checking people in. Somebody from the state or a registrar’s office could describe how they check that a registration application is from a living U.S. citizen residing at that address. For the most part, I suspect it is just the signed affirmation on the form. Getting the DMV involved introduced SNAFU. The big element of FUBAR will be the slow processing, piles of new forms and massive lines produced by all these new changes (see Georgia yesterday).

  8. well the photo in and of itself will not tell you that the voter is valid and how does that work for absentee ballots anyhow or nursing home residents who likely don’t have standard photo IDs?

    So can dead people end up on the poll books as valid voters with someone carrying a fake ID?

    My view is that there is quite a big of ignorance on what is actually done (or not) and how fraud can actually occur (and not).

    Some folks who are opposed – are just throwing wild-assed stuff that is not true. Others have real issues that need to be addressed but the idea that absentee ballots MAY BE just as flawed as same-day or mail-in ballots but it’s “OK” because there are not that many of them – that idea is flawed also.

    If absentee ballots have similar risks that are being claimed for mail-in or same day – then should they be outlawed all together until/unless we get it done correctly?

    If we can get absentee done “right” – is it also possible we can get mail-in and same-day also done “right” or are we really not in favor of more voting to start with and absentee is only “slightly” flawed?

  9. Looks like inherent complexity plus covid concerns plus GA-style complications due to last-minute changes equals a guaranteed mess on election day. So, the earlier the better for absentee voting. Are the rules set for November — for example, what’s the earliest one can request an absentee ballot in order to hope it will arrive in time to fill out and return?

  10. A huge benefit of this blog post is that Ms. Bencoach actually worked for the State Board of elections and knows facts… and Steve is actually working (so far) as an actual poll worker.

    I used to but I just did not care for the way they were running the operation and the final nail in the proverbial coffin was the uber-long day that was 80% sitting around and doing nothing. The “training” they provided – for instance on how to set up the special unit for special-needs, blind, as well as how to conduct voting for disabled folks in the parking lot – was way, way more “word-of-mouth” rather than written documentation. Not good.

    Many, also, do not understand that ALL of that equipment – for EACH precinct has to be provisioned/purchased, set-up/initialized, and stored in a locked-cage in a secured building then moved to the precincts the night before the polls open.

    • If you interacted with voters the way you interact with commenters here, Larry, I’m sure the lines reached halfway to Richmond. 🙂

  11. and ditto to you!

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