The intentional kneecapping of mail voting

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Early in the summer I published a well-retweeted post about why mail-in voting is, from a CPA’s perspective, a far more auditable voting method than even most traditional in-person systems. As mail and absentee voting have exploded beyond all records in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, however, a very real weakness lurking in mail voting systems has emerged that has nothing to do with their superior audibility. Indeed, the real Republican fear is that the near universal and secure voting enabled by expanded mail voting threatens the numerous barriers to poll access inherent in traditional ballot systems.

The many variants of existing mail voting procedures among states and locales, plus last-minute attempts to enlarge the system capacity in the wake of Covid-19 dangers, have opened the door to “partisan mischief,” in which a party in power can defeat the very advantages of this method if they have the desire to interfere. And this “mischief” has risen to the clear level of naked voter suppression in several cases.

Not surprisingly (and perhaps not coincidentally), three lawyers involved in the questionable Bush vs. Gore Supreme Court decision of 2000 are now sitting on the Supreme Court, opening the door to open disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of legal voters. [1]

The intentional rejection of legal votes

My second post on mail voting in August looked at the looming issue of high rejection rates for mail votes in statistical terms, which appears to be becoming the reality. The ostensible intent of challenges to mail and absentee ballots is to root out ballots by unqualified or illegal voters, but the evidence clearly demonstrates that thousands of ballots with minor issues, cast by legitimate voters, are cast aside in the process. In the end very few truly “illegal” ballots are ever found, and when they are found, it is usually because of other “trip wire” audit points embedded in good mail voting systems.

One of the most common reasons for rejecting a mail ballot is a signature mismatch. On October 7, 2020, a federal judge ordered the State of South Carolina to cease rejecting ballots on signature mismatches alone, but thousands of votes by legal voters are being rejected daily across the country as Election Day looms. In well-designed mail ballot systems, there are several alternative auditing measures that better tie the ballot to the actual voter than does a signature. Yet hundreds of thousands of legal voters will likely be disenfranchised during this election because they could not reproduce exactly the version of their signature that their state has on file for them.

In my own case, I know that the primary signature my home state has for me is from an electronic pad at the DMV office when I acquired my driver’s license. It is not a great rendition of my signature, but at least I can try to match it. Do you know what your state uses as your “official” signature?  Some states have better systems than others for notifying you of a signature mismatch and offering you ways to correct it.

The use of your signature to establish your identity is already an obsolete, error-prone system. Think about it. It is likely that you have transferred thousands of dollars electronically from your bank accounts without a signature. At the same time, you have likely cashed large checks with some quick scrawl on the back bearing little resemblance to your normal signature.

I have closed two large mortgages on “electronic signatures” alone. While signature matching could be retained for people who do not have alternative technologies available, various forms of “two-factor authentication” can be implemented in voting systems, just like what is now required to log into your email account. Surely if your bank or pharmacy can establish your identity for critical transactions via pin numbers and other means, so can the state.

Pre-checks and post-checks

Ideally, a well-structured mail voting system is able to do multiple “pre-checks” on ballots as they are submitted, making the signature match largely irrelevant. Post-election audits can fill in the remaining gaps. The latter only need to be done in close races, however. If a significantly-sized election is won by more than a couple of percentage points, even a concerted cheating effort is statistically unlikely to change the end result. And if there were “a million illegal voters in California” as Donald Trump once charged, any decent statistical sampling audit would flag this in a heartbeat.

Standard statistical methods can be used to determine (a) when a particular race in a particular jurisdiction is close enough to require an audit, and (b) how many ballots need to be statistically sampled in order to find an irregularity significant enough to throw the result in doubt, or at least to suggest a more substantial audit is in order. CPAs do these types of audits all the time to look for financial irregularities in financial statements. If that audit process is good enough to validate millions of dollars of company inventories or accounts receivable balances, then certainly these methods are good enough to certify votes.

As I noted in a long-ago post about a tied election in a state legislative race, there often is no “single true” vote count in sizable contests. There will be counting issues and disputed ballots swinging votes in either direction. The key here is to try to remove partisan bias in the determination of disputed counts. Instead we are seeing many instances of the intentional insertion of bias by party lawyers against legal voters casting legal ballots.

In several court cases, Republicans during this election season are simultaneously trying to limit pre-checks of ballots before election day, and at the same time, trying to eliminate counting after election day, delays often caused by insufficient pre-checks or the notorious (intentional?) mis-management problems in the Postal Service.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in an opinion being widely panned as one of the most embarrassingly bad of any Supreme Court opinion in recent years, justifies an early shutdown of ballot counts “to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after Election Day and potentially flip the results of an election.”

The problem here is, as fellow (and more experienced) Justice Elena Kagan responded, “there are no results to ‘flip’ until all valid votes are counted.”

Kavanaugh also ignorantly laments that “Those states also want to be able to definitively announce the results of the election on election night,” but that has never officially been the case. It is the American media, not elections officers, who have often “called” races within minutes after polls close based on a few selected bellwether precincts or exit polls. Justice Kavanaugh is proving to be a clueless partisan in these cases, shilling for the president who put him on the bench.

The odds are already stacked

The original writers of the U.S. Constitution already baked into the presidential election an anti-democratic (small-d) bias, preserving the rights of rural (and slave-holding) states against the growing populations of the big cities. This has only gotten worse, and it has created a large structural disadvantage to the Democratic Party’s more urban candidates in multiple past elections.

The history of overt voter suppression aimed at minority communities in the United States is one of the ugliest parts of our history. But the more subtle ways have been perhaps as effective. We vote at a very inconvenient time for millions of people. Voting lines in minority communities are unquestionably longer on average than in predominantly white communities. Voter ID laws intentionally attempt to screen out the elderly, poorer people who move frequently, and students, all of whom are less likely to have “approved” forms of identification.

The knives are out in this election as supporters of this President see the likely end of their days in power. The statisticians predict that Joe Biden needs at least a five-point advantage over Donald Trump this time in order to escape the current system’s anti-popular-vote biases.

A top priority of the next presidential administration needs to be legislation to guarantee an unobstructed right to vote in the United States. And that possibility breeds deep existential fear in the Republican Party.


  1. Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kavanaugh, and Justice Barrett all had contributing roles supporting the Republican Party in prematurely halting the recount vote in Florida in 2000.

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