A Proposal for States to Provide Mail-in Style Voting Without the USPS

By | Tuesday, August 18, 2020 Leave a Comment

[Update: USPS backs off plans]
[Just one day after posting how states can work around the disruption of the USPS in terms of mail-in voting, the powers that be have backed off from their plans. I didn't realize I had that much influence. I guess the pen is mightier than the sword after all. Still, let's keep this simmering on the back burner - we may yet need it.]

dOnald tRump intends to interfere with mail-in voting:
With just months to go before the election, dOnald tRump has installed one of his lackeys to cripple or destroy the USPS, disrupting the use of mail-in ballots. This is a dickish move for a variety of reasons. Not only is it a cowardly, cheater’s way to interfere with the election and attempt to throw it his way, but also the USPS serves vital functions for real people. Vast numbers receive critical medications through the mail. While the wealthiest among us can afford to simply move to private carriers for all their mail, many Americans, especially some of our least affluent, need the USPS for all sorts of communications and deliveries, generally provided at costs well below what outside companies currently offer. I could go on and on about the value of the post office, but I won’t here. 

I will grant that the Internet has significantly reduced the use of first-class mail. Many people communicate by email, bills are presented and paid via websites, and magazines are read online. All this is certainly true. And it is true that while first-class mail is becoming a smaller and smaller part of what the post office does, package delivery is growing. So it makes sense to reduce (though certainly not slash and burn) the post office’s focus on first-class mail, retooling for package delivery. I further acknowledge that, given enough advanced warning, preparation, and time, public sector companies, such as UPS and FedEx, could probably find ways to restructure their businesses so that they could provide basic envelope delivery for reasonable rates. But, doing this right now, before the election, in a pandemic, when people will need mail-in voting if they want to vote safely, is unconscionable. Meanwhile, our President has all but admitted that crippling of the USPS is being done at this time in order to disrupt the election, not to truly address system inefficiencies.

Is there something we can do about it?
I would like to suggest a way that states could, if they chose, enable the functionality of mail-in balloting without the USPS. I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate that there is no reason why states should have to take on this effort, cost, and complexity, but there it is. Here we are. We have descended so far as a nation that the states need to actively work to circumvent the misdeeds of the President. Sigh.

The Elections Clause of the Constitution grants states the right to set the time, place, and manner of elections. Given that, here are my suggestions for how states could implement safe voting for the 2020 election, and possibly future elections as well. There are two main areas to be examined: getting ballots to voters, and receiving those completed ballots back. For each of these, there is the case of states that currently provide primarily in-person voting on the day of an election, and those that use “automatic mail-in ballot systems”. [Note that the states with automatic mail-in voting still provide some polling places for in-person election-day voting for those who cannot vote by mail for some reason. Note too that all states with in-person voting also offer the absentee/mail-in option, though it may require an application to do so.] 

Though it is chronologically out of order, I would like to start with the question of how ballots can be returned.

Getting completed ballots sent in to the state:
In states that currently rely on in-person voting (i.e. not providing automatic mail-in balloting), getting completed “mail-in” ballots submitted without using the USPS could easily be done by having voters drop off their ballots at their local polling place on election day. The polling places are already set to be open and staffed, so this would require virtually no additional infrastructure. Also, doing so is currently provided as an option for the return of absentee ballots in all states (as I understand it). So, this suggestion really consists of having states expand an option that they already provide!

People who have filled out and are dropping off their completed ballot can be provided with their own line or lines, which should move quite quickly - since all the voter needs to do is drop their ballot into a slot. Furthermore, this should significantly reduce the number of people coming to election places to actually cast their votes in person, reducing the size of those lines, and reducing the health hazard that such congregations of people present.

Moreover, using such a system, states could provide for dropping off ballots days or even weeks prior to the election, without involving the post office. Ballots could be left at the selfsame polling stations, with the usual guards and election observers, or this could be done at locations that are not traditionally used for polls. Maybe ballot lock-boxes could be installed in spots where mail drop boxes have recently been removed! Again, there should be few or no lines, since all a person need do is walk (or drive) up, drop an envelope into a slot, and leave. The election monitors could easily be protected from COVID exposure by literally providing a mail slot in a window, door, or Plexiglas panel, with no contact between the voter and the monitor. As for security of the election, this is safer than sending ballots through the mail.

In the four states that currently utilize automatic mail-in ballots, exactly the same sort of drop off locations would be created so that voters can avoid the anticipated postal logjam. To serve constituents that live in sparsely populated areas, the state could acquire the services of an organization like Brinks. They could arrange for Brinks trucks, driven by guards and carrying election monitors, to drive around the state, collecting ballots at various pre-announced locations. Again, people would simply be depositing their envelope through a slot. There would be no exposure for the election monitors or guards, other than to each other. (Obviously, rapid turnaround testing and/or isolation would be required for these election officials to mitigate the potential of them infecting each other if any of them have the virus.)

Furthermore, this mobile drop-off approach could be added to states that have traditionally used in-person voting. One hears of places where it is difficult for people to get to some far-off polling place, or to make such a trek on election day. The approach of using armored vehicles as rolling ballot depositories could actually expand voter access in states that are willing to adopt it. Though voter fraud doesn’t really exist, dropping a ballot into a slot in a Brinks armored truck should provide voters with confidence that their ballot will be handled securely.

Getting ballots into the hands of voters:
OK. Now we just have to get the ballot to the voter in the first place. If states mail out ballots early enough, the problem could be obviated. But deadlines for submitting initiatives and the like have already been set. Forcing the mailing of ballots to occur earlier than anticipated could bring its own problems. 

Note that the ballots themselves contain no personally identifiable information. In fact, in California, where I live, there is a law requiring that a ballot be invalidated if there are any identifying marks on it. Thus, other than the candidates that are running for office and any initiatives that are unique to your district, every ballot is interchangeable. 

Currently, (in every state I have lived in) ballots are sent out with a return envelope provided. The front of that envelope simply has the address of the district office where the ballot should be delivered, plus some information used by the post office. There is absolutely nothing on the front that is unique to any individual voter. The back of the envelope is imprinted with the voter’s name and address, a place for the voter’s signature, a section to indicate if another individual is voting for you, and various information and reminders to assist voters. The name and address are used along with the signature to verify that the voter is registered to vote, at that address, and with that signature (see the Center for Civic Design for details.)

The voters' name and address is printed on the return envelope for identification purposes (it also serves in sending the packet to the voter by exposing that address through a window in the outer envelope.) But, there is no real reason why the voter cant write their name and address on the envelope along with their signature. If the envelope were not imprinted with the name and address, then there is actually nothing unique about any given return envelope. With this change, you and I could swap envelopes and ballots, and still be able vote successfully (assuming we are in the same voting district.)

So why are we sending mail-in ballots to voters at all? Why have we ever sent ballots to mail-in voters (who are not actually "absentee")? [The case with absentee is slightly different in that it is assumed that the voter is not able to get to their voting district.] We could simply provide piles of ballots with blank envelopes at public places such as grocery stores, banks, libraries and government buildings (with giant signs warning people that they must take a ballot that is appropriate for their district.) Anyone can take a ballot whenever they want. Or, blank ballots could be mailed out to registered voters, with general distribution provided as a service to anyone whose mail was delayed. In fact, the ballot and an envelope template could be downloadable for printing at home! 

I'll go one step farther. The same ballot and envelope used for mail-in voting could be provided to voters at polling stations on election day. Why should voters have wait in line, go up to a desk, get verified, then go into a booth and push buttons, punch holes, touch screens, pull levers, or what have you. Rather, voters would get a ballot and envelope, fill it in wherever they like (sitting in their car, on a park bench, in the loo, wherever), put it in the envelope (with name, address, and signature), and drop it into a secured voting box. If we have put in place such systems for "mail-in" ballots, why not use the exact same mechanism for same-day, "in-person" voting. Poll workers would still need to be present to assist voters that are confused, or disabled in ways that render using the mail-in style ballot impossible. Poll workers and security would still be required to maintain order and the enforce the laws surrounding polling places. But, the vast majority of potentially hazardous human contact would be eliminated, without using a single stamp.

Yes, counting "mail-in" type ballots is slower than using voting machines, but four of our great states have been doing it successfully for years.

Final thoughts:
I’m not saying that DJT shouldn’t be drawn and quartered for his iniquity, but, it appears that Postmaster General deJoyless will have the USPS shredded before anything can be done about it. The tRump administration has a head start, and doesn’t seem to mind doing things that are illegal or unconstitutional. Maybe I am woefully mistaken on some aspect of the mechanics of submitting ballots, but the evisceration of the USPS seems like something states can work around if they want to. Wouldn’t that be a kick! tRump builds a 10’ wall, and we buy a 10’ ladder. Game, set, match.
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