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.