* Mail-in ballots much more likely to be rejected
* States' experience handling mail-ins differ widely
* Voter fraud is potential problem but not widespread
By Peter Henderson
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 4 Sloppy signatures on
mail-in ballots might prove to be the hanging chads of the 2012
As Republicans and Democrats raise alarms about potential
voter fraud and voter suppression, mail-in ballots have boomed
as an uncontroversial form of convenient, inexpensive voting.
In the critical swing states of Ohio and Florida, more than
a fifth of voters chose the mail-in option 2010. In Colorado,
another battleground, the number was nearly two-thirds.
But there may be controversy to come. For a variety of
reasons, mail-in ballots are much more likely to be rejected
than conventional, in-person votes.
With the razor-close presidential election Tuesday between
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney
potentially riding on a few tens of thousands of votes in a
handful of states, the election could be decided by election
officials' judgments about mail-in ballot signatures.
"You would worry that in Florida, in particular, the new
hanging chad becomes whether you count this absentee ballot or
not based on whether the signature is right," said Charles
Stewart III, co-director of the Voting Technology Project and a
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.
The "hanging chad" made election history in 2000 when
President George W. Bush won Florida, and in turn the
presidency, by 537 votes after election officials debated which
absentee ballots and punch ballots with hanging flaps to count.
"In the case of Florida, a lot of absentee ballots get
rejected because of signature problems. That's open for
mischief," said Stewart, noting that poll workers could favor
one side or the other.
Mail-in voters typically have to request a ballot, fill it
out when it arrives, put it in an envelope, seal it, sign it,
put it in a second envelope and drop it in the mail.
At the elections office, the outer envelope is opened and
the signature verified, and if it's judged to be valid the
ballot goes into safe-keeping for counting.
Many states attempt to contact the voter if there is any
issue with the ballot. Election officials in states with deep
experience in mail-in voting - especially Oregon and Washington
state, which rely on it entirely - say they have honed the
process to reduce invalid ballots to a minimum.
But in many other states the process is not as fast or
simple as talking to someone at a polling station. National law
requires equipment at voting stations that informs voters of
ballot issues and lets them fix them; fix-it opportunities are
not mandated for mail-in ballots.
As a result, mail-in ballot voters who manage to get a
ballot to election officials are about four times more likely to
see their vote go uncounted as those who vote in person, Stewart
Add in the number of ballots never sent to voters who
request them and ballots that don't make it to the polling
station, and approximately one in five mail-in votes may be
lost, Stewart says.
How absentee ballots are counted can affect outcomes in the
most important of races. Minnesota Senator Al Franken won his
seat in 2008 by 312 votes after a fight over absentee ballots.
Jeff Clemens, a Democrat recently declared winner of a Palm
Beach County Senate primary that had been the subject of several
recounts and a court case due to alleged absentee ballot fraud,
said Florida needs to reevaluate how it handles mail-in ballots.
"There's no question that the absentee ballot process as it
stands is a potential disaster," he added.
COMFORTS OF HOME
Voters like the convenience of making decisions at their own
pace, in their homes, and election officials say it costs less
to operate a mail-in system. Officials say it also boosts
turnout, especially in lower profile elections, when the fate of
a school board official might justify a few minutes with the
mail, but not an hour's trip down to a polling station.
But Ohio rejected more than 14,000 mail-in ballots in 2010,
or 1.7 percent of those sent in domestically, and Florida
rejected close to 18,000, or 1.4 percent, according to the
federal Electoral Assistance Commission survey. Both topped the
national average of 1.3 percent. In Colorado, rejected absentee
ballots made up 0.43 percent of the total cast in the election.
In Colorado, where polls show a dead heat in the
presidential election, officials' decisions about which ballots
to reject could easily determine which way the state goes.
Some election researchers say vote-by-mail is inherently
problematic, because it does away with the iron-clad guarantee
of a secret ballot. That's a problem for an individual who wants
privacy but can't get it, such as a partner in an abusive
relationship. It also makes vote-buying much easier, since
purchases can make sure they get what they buy.
That has not been much of a problem so far, but it has
happened. In Miami, a mayor's race in 1997 was overturned by a
court, which threw out 5,000 absentee ballots in the face of
evidence of illegal activity including forgery and coercion.
"I think it is somewhat serious in actuality, and it's quite
serious in potential," said Daniel Lowenstein, an election law
specialist and emeritus professor of law at UCLA.
So can vote-by-mail be done right? Election officials in
Washington state and Oregon say the keys are to use statewide
databases when registering voters, to train workers in forensics
and manually check every signature and to contact voters whose
ballots don't pass, giving them enough time to correct problems.
Oregon even sends pairs of voting assistance workers, from
opposing parties, to nursing homes as a way to avoid such
pressure. Oregon throws out half as many mail-in ballots as the
states likely to determine the president this year.
Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, who won her first
state primary election by seven votes, argues that her system is
better than a hybrid offering voters polling stations as well as
"One of the challenges for states that have both absentee
and polling place elections is that there is a lack of
consistency in the process," she said.
Oregon approved going to exclusively mail-in-ballots in
1998, and it has cut rejections to an average of 0.64 percent of
ballots in the last five elections, Brown says.
Oregon turnout of registered voters in the 2008 presidential
race was third in the nation at 85.7 percent, which the state
says is the best measure of vote-by-mail's success.
Washington state came more recently to vote-by-mail. It
rejected more than 2 of every 100 ballots in 2008. But the state
cut that rate by a third in 2010, which State Elections
Co-Director Shane Hamlin credited to massive voter education.
Signature issues and late ballots are the two main issues in
Washington, like most states. "They are both totally fixable
through education," he said.
In Ohio, more than a million absentee ballots have arrived
at elections offices so far. Secretary of State spokesman Matt
McClellan describes a long series of actions taken to ensure
mail-in ballots are counted, including contacting voters whose
ballots are problematic.
An Obama campaign spokesman acknowledged the importance of
making sure mail-in ballots are handled properly and said the
campaign would have observers in key areas. The Romney campaign
did not respond to a request for comment.
McClellan said the state was trying to balance accuracy and
access, a theme echoed in states across the country eager to
raise participation rates and see mail-in as one way to do so.
"It fits the 21st century lifestyle," said Washington state
Secretary of State Sam Reed.