WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With a health crisis expected to drive a surge in mail voting in November, U.S. election officials face a major challenge: Ensure tens of millions of ballots can reach voters in time to be cast, and are returned in time to be counted.
Recent presidential nomination contests and other elections held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic - a warm-up for the Nov. 3 general election if COVID-19 remains a threat - showed some states have been overwhelmed by the sudden rush to vote by mail.
Nearly half of U.S. states allow voters to request absentee ballots less than a week before their elections. Even under normal circumstances, that often is too little lead time to guarantee voters will receive their ballots and have sufficient time to return them, election experts and state officials say.
In Ohio, for example, whose nearly all-mail election on April 28 was marred by ballot delivery delays, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose has asked state lawmakers to change the deadline for voters to request a mail ballot to one week before an election, up from three days currently.
“It is not logistically possible” for all voters asking for ballots at the last minute to get them in time to return them by mail, LaRose told Reuters. “That relies on a lot of luck.”
At stake is the integrity of the general election, and possibly its outcome. Voters who follow their state’s rules but can’t get their ballots back in time due to no fault of their own could be effectively disenfranchised. That could spark legal challenges in states where the race between President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden will be decided by slim margins. Tight contests could also decide control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.
“Citizens could respond to all this and say our democracy is broken,” said Paul Gronke, a political scientist who expects about half of all ballots to be cast by mail in November, compared to a fifth delivered that way in 2016.
“Election officials need to move now” to make preparations to expeditiously move election mail and to avoid widespread disenfranchisement, said Gronke, who heads the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland.
Some are taking action. Wisconsin’s bipartisan election commission is working on adding new barcodes to ballot envelopes for tracking them in the mail, a move experts say would help the United States Postal Service process them more quickly. The commission also plans to mail absentee ballot applications to 2.7 million registered voters who are not already on absentee voter rolls, a move that should help reduce 11th-hour requests.
Michigan’s Democratic Secretary of State likewise plans to mail absentee ballot applications to every voter ahead of November’s election, as Republican secretaries of state in Georgia and Iowa did for their June primaries.
Trump has criticized Michigan’s plan, and some Republican state lawmakers called it an unnecessary expense. The president and his allies nationwide have repeatedly said mail voting is prone to fraud, even as numerous independent studies have found little evidence of that.
Experts are most worried about battleground states that have little history of large-scale voting by mail, including Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. They are among the 24 states in which mail-in ballots comprised no more than 8% of ballots counted in 2018 midterm elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Failure by these states to prepare could lead to messy legal fights in the event of a close contest in November, said Edward Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University.
“If you have 10,000 voters that never got their ballots, or their ballots didn’t get returned by the post office and the statewide margin is 3,000, well now you have got litigation over the results,” Foley said.
The Postal Service has internally set delivery targets for election mail ranging between one and three days, according to an audit of election mail service by the USPS Inspector General published in November. But in the 2018 elections, about one in 20 political and election mailings took longer than targeted, the audit found.
In a statement to Reuters, the Postal Service said it is holding discussions with state and local election officials nationwide on how to design their mailings for efficient processing and delivery.
Some voting rights advocates worry these efforts don’t go far enough. Setting an earlier deadline for requesting a ballot could also make it harder for people to vote if they contract the coronavirus or have other problems just before the election, said Jen Miller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
Miller is advocating that Ohio send ballot applications to all registered voters and set up more drop boxes so that concerned voters can deposit ballots there.
“I think it’s reasonable for an Ohioan to be worried about putting their ballot in the mail,” Miller said.
(For a graphic on the share of U.S. voters who cast mail ballots, see: tmsnrt.rs/2XvVajc)
April elections in Wisconsin and Ohio, which included presidential nomination contests, offered a preview of what could happen if the coronavirus is raging in November and in-person voting is severely restricted.
After Ohio sharply curtailed in-person voting, election officials were inundated with roughly 2 million applications for mail-in ballots - more than six times the number of mail ballots cast in the 2016 primary. But as they scrambled to process the requests, they discovered that some ballots mailed out to voters took as long as nine days to reach them.
What was not known to them at the time, and which Reuters has exclusively learned, was that a coronavirus outbreak was ravaging a mail sorting facility in neighboring Michigan called the Michigan Metroplex, delaying election mail bound for northwestern Ohio.
At least two workers at the Detroit-area plant died after testing positive for COVID-19, and hundreds of its roughly 700 union workers were out sick or in quarantine on many days between mid-March and mid-April, according to Roscoe Woods, the head of the local branch of the American Postal Workers Union.
Letters were shipped to Ohio unsorted, forcing local post offices there to organize mail manually for delivery, Woods told Reuters.
“I don’t think anyone was prepared for the level of infection,” Woods said.
The Postal Service told Reuters it was investigating the matter, but would not confirm a coronavirus outbreak at the Metroplex. A spokesman for the office of LaRose, the Ohio Secretary of State, said the Postal Service confirmed the Metroplex was the problem facility.
LaRose said the experience left him with big concerns about November. He anticipates as many as 60% of Ohio’s ballots will be cast by mail, triple the percentage from 2016.
“I hope we never have to have an all vote-by-mail election again,” he said.
In Wisconsin, an important battleground state that was decided in Trump’s favor by less than a percentage point in 2016, about 1.3 million voters applied for absentee ballots for its April 7 primary, overloading officials accustomed to issuing only a fraction of that number.
In a May 15 report, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said 2,659 ballots were tossed out because they arrived after April 13, the last day ballots postmarked by Election Day could be counted. The commission does not know how many of these were postmarked in time, spokesman Reid Magney said.
The commission said it expects “terrific challenges” in November. It estimates more than half the state’s 3.4 million registered voters could request mail ballots. In November 2016, just under 150,000 - or about 5% of three million votes - were cast by mail.
In North Carolina, another competitive state, the state election board expects 30% to 40% of ballots to be cast by mail and is working to implement new barcodes on all ballot envelopes, said Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the board.
Mail ballots that arrive at North Carolina election offices up to three days after the election are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.
But Jason Roberts, a Democratic member of the board of elections for Orange County, North Carolina, said he saw scores of ballots in the state’s March primary that were postmarked in time but arrived four or five days after the election.
“I would be hesitant to vote by mail in North Carolina on Election Day given what I’ve seen,” Roberts said.
Reporting by Jason Lange in Washington; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Marla Dickerson