This story out of Passaic County is not another story about absentee ballots and vote fraud. But it is a cautionary tale about how important ballot handling procedures can be when new voting systems are implemented.
The basic summary is this: a county clerk found 49 uncounted mail in ballots while “handling” the ballots after the election. Even though the envelopes had been time-stamped indicating that they had arrived on time, the clerk chose not to count them because the election results had already been announced. A judge overturned this decision, and once counted, a different winner was declared.
What I found most curious, and disturbing, about the story is this quote:
Ken Hirrman, an office administrator with the Passaic County Board of Elections, said he discovered the 49 ballots Tuesday while handling the mail-in ballots.
Hirmann said he noticed the uncounted ballots because they were enclosed in thicker envelopes, indicating that they had not been opened and counted.
I have witnessed a lot of vote by mail and absentee balloting systems and have interviewed dozens of election officials about their administrative procedures. I can’t imagine putting in place a system whereby the situation above could possibly occur. This means that the ballot, still inside the secrecy sleeve, and then still inside the stamped envelope, somehow made it through the slicing process, the signature verification process, the separation of the outside envelope from the inner ballot process, and finally the tallying process, and no one noticed that there were still intact envelopes in the batch?
New Jersey has only recently gone to no-excuse absentee and permanent absentee. I hope they have also paid attention to some of the long established ballot handling procedures put in place in CA, OR, WA, IA, and many other states.
Paul Gronke, Director of EVIC, was quoted in the New York Times today on the potential problems with a top-two primary system in California.
There have been accusations of absentee vote fraud in Lincoln County, WV, when 75% of absentee ballots that were requested were returned, and 90% of those favored one group of candidates.
The response of county officials is not encouraging:
“Our office encouraged every voter to participate in the democratic process, whether it be early voting at the courthouse, at local voting precincts or absentee voting,” Scraggs read from the statement. “An increase in any of the options is an encouraging sign that the democratic process is alive and well.
“Therefore, who would think that having more people vote is a bad thing?” Scraggs read.
This is a wonderful example of how election forensics can detect likely election fraud. While the technology is complicated (see Walter Mebane’s papers and Alvarez, Hall, and Hyde’s book), the intuition behind the statistics is simple.
In short, 75% absentee ballot return is not “high” or “low” unless you compare it to some standard. The problem is that it’s impossible to discover absentee ballot return rates from the state’s website. Since overall turnout was juist 42.99% in 2008, however, that 75% return rate does seem high (keep in mind that absentee voters have actively requested a ballot, already indicating their preference for voting).
As to the totals for one faction vs. the other, the county elections website shows no vote totals at all for 2008! This makes judging the 2010 results a bit sketchy.
Data = transparency!
A longer commentary will follow on Monday. For now, the story is below. Wyden and other senators introduced a bill this week that would make it easier for states to adopt VBM and no-excuse absentee voting, citing turnout boosts and cost savings.
Wisconsin Attorney General JB Van Hollen has criticized new provisions in a bill moving through the legislature, arguing that making voter registration automatic when citizens establish or change a drivers license opens the system up to fraud. By not requiring citizens to sign a form confirming their information, Van Hollen says the bill will “create many problems.”
I may be missing something, but I’m not sure how having voter registration information match the information on a drivers license is an invitation to fraud.
A judge in Cameron County, TX (Brownsville) has impounded ballots in anticipation of a potential contested election. Some poll watchers charged that the signatures on absentee applications did not match the envelopes.
This is not all about absentee voting, however. One campaign charged the precinct place ballot boxes were left unsealed at the end of election day.
The final tally was 2159 to 2110.
I have been receiving literally dozens of emails every day. I am sorry that I cannot answer all of these questions individually, but the most common and most important one is this:
YES. Your early votes ARE counted.
It is not true that early votes are only counted if an election is close. The final, certified results include all ballots.
Since early voting began this election cycle, and since it has become apparent that turnout among registered Democrats has been higher than among registered Republicans in some states, an important question has been raised: does public knowledge of who is voting early affect the outcome of the election?
This is an excellent question for which we, unfortunately, don’t have an answer. Yet.
There are a couple things to keep in mind, however, when searching for possible conclusions.
We do not know how individuals voted, we only know if a voter is registered Democrat or Republican. This may be an indicator of how they have or will vote, but voters do not always cast ballots for the same party with which they are registered.
This said, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Democrats in many states that allow early voting have cast more ballots than their Republican counterparts. (See EVIC’s previous posts or articles in USA Today and BBC News.) Might just knowing this, might just the impression that there have been more ballots cast for the Democratic candidate affect the outcome of the election, whether or not it is true?
A question I am sure we will ponder in the months to come…
Statement Regarding the MSNBC Map for Early Voting
October 23, 2008
Paul Gronke, Early Voting Information Center
MSNBC published on their website a map describing which states allow no-excuse early voting in the 2008 election cycle. The map was based on information obtained from the Early Voting Information Center (earlyvoting.net).
The information was collected to follow early voting in the 2008 primary. The chart clearly stated that the information had not been updated since February 2008. Some states have changed their laws since that time, and we have labored to keep up with a rapidly changing terrain of early voting.
In addition, we note clearly on the webpage that there are conflicting interpretations of what constitutes “early in person” and “absentee” voting. We use “early in person” voting to describe situations where a citizen shows up at an elections office or satellite location and votes in most respects like on election day–checking in with a government official, signing in on a poll book, and casting a ballot on a voting machine.
We use “absentee” voting to describe situations where citizens request an absentee ballot, which is usually delivered to them by mail, and then they return this ballot, most often by mail. Many states do not require an excuse in order to vote absentee (“no excuse”), while some states retain the requirement that a voter provide an excuse.
However, an increasing number of states allow citizens to show up in person at a local elections office, request an absentee ballot, and fill out the ballot right there. We have chosen to call this “early in person absentee balloting” but some states describe this as “early in person voting.” Obviously, EVIC cannot establish a set of definitions for all states.
This information used by MSNBC was used without prior consultation with EVIC and the included some information that was out of date. The information has been updated to the best of our abilities. We apologize for any misinterpretations that have been based on the map produced by MSNBC, although we played no part in the production of the map.
Finally, MSNBC included on their map only early in person voting. They ignored the columns that described “by mail” voting which is why WA and OR are mislabeled on the map.
Conny McCormack, formerly of the LA County elections office, reviewed Florida elections in two large counties (Hillsborough and Miami-Dade) during their fall primary. She warns of the high likelihood of long lines during early voting–a prediction that is coming all too true.