To say there’s a lot of anticipation around the 2020 election cycle would be an understatement. But what goes unnoticed often is how much of the burden of that anticipation falls on elections officials. Between opening poll locations, providing voting machines (and ensuring they work properly), printing out paper ballots and deploying staffers to manage these operations, a lot of time, labor and money goes into in-person voting.
It’s no surprise, then, that many counties and states have begun moving toward absentee and vote-by-mail balloting. In Colorado, Washington and Oregon, all voting is carried out by mailing in ballots; California is adopting a statewide vote-by-mail system by 2020; 28 states and Washington, D.C., use “no excuse” absentee voting, and New York is looking to become the 29th.
The benefits of vote-by-mail and absentee voting are twofold. For one, more mail balloting means a sharp reduction in the costs that go into opening and maintain polling locations – which includes equipment, drop boxes, printing lasers, workers, training, scheduling, and forensics systems for tracking ballots. Additionally, more opportunities to mail in votes makes voting easier overall, which in turn improves voter turnout.
Vote-by-mail and absentee voting is a win-win scenario for both voters and elections officials…but only if both parties can actually be guaranteed a high level of integrity around their ballots. Specifically, that the envelope received by each voter contains the correct ballot – and that this also holds true once the ballot is returned. If constituents and elections officials can’t trust the integrity of the process from end-to-end, then the whole thing breaks down.
Putting a premium on transparency
With constant headlines about claims of election interference and voter data breaches, security and accountability has never been more important to the voting process than now. State and county elections departments need to be able to demonstrate that they can oversee the entire process and timeline of delivering mail ballots to voters – from when the ballots are made, to when they’re inserted into envelopes, to when they’re addressed and delivered and, finally, received back by the county.
Why is that level of integrity important? For one, it provides a measure of confidence for the voters themselves. Are they getting the right ballot? Does the envelope received by the voter contain every page of the ballot, so they’re getting all the same choices to make and information to read as any other person? Are the ballots getting back to the county in one piece, so that voters know their votes are being properly counted? Knowing that this integrity exists should go hand-in-hand with voting itself.
But it also benefits the elections officials to be able to demonstrate end-to-end tracking, auditing and monitoring across the lifecycle of a mailed ballot. Have the ballots been sent to the correct names and addresses? Do those envelopes contain everything they’re supposed to? If a voter contests that they never actually received their ballot, or never received a specific page of their ballot, can the county prove that the ballot was, in fact, sent to a specific person, on a specific day? Not being able to demonstrate that kind of transparency and accountability doesn’t just do a disservice to voters, it undermines the ability of elections officials to do their job properly.
And that goes beyond just tracking the envelope itself. States and counties need to be able to audit what’s going on inside those envelopes – that every ballot sent carries every page it’s supposed to, and that the envelopes going out and coming back are consistent and accurate, right down to the thickness of the envelope itself.
November 2020 will almost certainly be a high-turnout election, particularly as more states adopt absentee and vote-by-mail balloting. That means a greater volume of ballots to print, mail and keep track of, both outbound and inbound. It’s imperative that state and county elections officials take steps now to invest in solutions for creating, delivering and tracking mail ballots. Make voting easier for voters, improve ballot auditing and security, and cut down on the costs that go into polling places – from equipment to training to staffers – all in one go.
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