hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2020


Are we ready to vote?

Region braces for surge of absentee and early ballots


A voter casts an early ballot at North Adams City Hall in advance of the Sept. 1 state primary in Massachusetts. photo by Joan K. Lentini


A voter casts an early ballot at North Adams City Hall in advance of the Sept. 1 state primary in Massachusetts. photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


Elections officials across the region are scrambling to prepare for a surge of mail-in or drop-off ballots this fall against the backdrop of a high-turnout presidential contest that some fear could turn chaotic.

With one of the most contentious presidential campaigns in memory unfolding amid the lingering danger of the Covid-19 pandemic, record numbers of voters are expected to seek alternatives to voting in person on Election Day.

Massachusetts, New York and Vermont have all acted decisively this year to encourage more mail-in and early voting – with the goal of enabling voter participation while minimizing voters’ and election workers’ potential exposure to the coronavirus.

As a result, all three states saw huge increases in the use of mail-in ballots in primary elections this summer.

In Vermont’s Aug. 11 primary, for example, 114,000 voters cast absentee ballots, up from just 17,000 in the 2016 state primary. This year, absentee ballots, most of them submitted by mail, accounted for 72 percent of the votes cast in the primary.

In Massachusetts, voters turned in nearly 1 million absentee ballots in advance of the Sept. 1 state primary, accounting for more than 60 percent of the 1.6 million votes cast, according to an election night tally by the Associated Press.

At least in the primaries, elections officials in Vermont and Massachusetts were able to keep up with the new wave of mail-in ballots, which were processed and counted with few problems.
But things didn’t go so smoothly in parts of New York, where voters requested some 1.8 million absentee ballots for the June 23 primary – up from just 157,000 in 2016. In the New York City area, delays in processing absentee ballots meant the outcome of three highly competitive congressional primaries wasn’t known until nearly six weeks after the election.

The November general election, which normally sees much higher turnout than the primaries, will pose a bigger test in all three states, where the vast majority of votes before the pandemic were cast at in-person polling places.

Overall, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont “don’t have much experience with this,” said Chris Mann, an assistant professor of political science at Skidmore College whose research focuses on ways to increase voter participation in U.S. elections.

Voting by mail
The push toward mail-in ballots this year has been driven by concerns about Covid-19 – and the risks of spreading the virus through in-person voting.

Those risks were driven home in April in Wisconsin, where a primary election left some voters standing in line for hours at crowded polling places. Later, state health officials identified nearly 70 coronavirus cases that might have been spread by the election.

But President Trump and some of his allies have attacked the move toward mail-in voting, arguing that it might increase the risk for fraud – a concern nearly all elections officials and experts say is unfounded.

Five states -- Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah -- already held statewide elections almost entirely by mail before the pandemic. Nebraska and Kansas have administered mail-in elections for years in rural areas with low population, Mann said.

Ten more states, including Vermont, decided this year to mail ballots to all voters, and Montana gave counties the option of doing so, he said.

In practice, there’s not much difference between voting by mail and voting absentee. The main one is that universal vote-by-mail states send ballots to all registered voters. In states that use absentee ballots, voters normally have to request a ballot and otherwise use in-person polling places.

After Trump suggested in an interview last month that he was attempting to thwart mail-in voting by blocking financial aid to the U.S. Postal Service, some voters have questioned whether mail-in voting will be reliable.

But not all completed absentee or vote-by-mail ballots are actually mailed. Depending on the state, voters typically have the option of returning ballots in person to elections offices, polling places, or secure drop boxes.

New York has for decades had some of the strictest requirements in the nation for obtaining absentee ballots, by requiring voters to specify one of six valid reasons that they couldn’t vote in person – such as illness or absence from their home county on Election Day. As a result, absentee ballots typically have accounted for fewer than 10 percent of the votes cast in New York. This year, however, the state added concerns about Covid-19 to the list of valid reasons for voting absentee.

Vermont has allowed “no-excuse” absentee voting all along, and the share of Vermonters voting in advance of Election Day has been rising steadily over the years, reaching 30 percent before the pandemic. That has given the state “a bit of a head start” in preparing for this year’s surge in mail-in votes, Mann said.


Boosting turnout in N.Y.
New York conducted its first all-mail election in early June, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo, using emergency powers because of the pandemic, canceled the scheduled May 19 balloting in school districts across the state. Instead, he directed school districts to run their elections entirely by mail.

New York’s elections for school boards and budgets are administered by individual school districts under state education laws. Other elections are governed by the state constitution, which has no provision for mail-only elections, and administered by county boards of elections.
Under the governor’s directive, school districts had three weeks to create lists of eligible voters, print and mail ballots, and tally the results.

“They did a fairly heroic job with short notice,” said Al Marlin, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. “There were some pretty severe issues.”

Most of the state’s school districts relied on a printer under state contract for their election materials, but the printer couldn’t meet the demand on time. Cuomo stepped in and moved the balloting deadline back one week, from June 9 to June 16.

School elections are what Mann calls a “low-salience election,” where the issues are rarely contentious and turnout normally is small. But this year, when district residents received ballots in their mailboxes, participation boomed.

Statewide, voter turnout for school elections was less than 500,000 last year, said Paul Heiser, a senior researcher at the school boards association. This June, it was 1.5 million. One district had 22 times the usual number of voters, Heiser said.

School districts rely on volunteers, often elderly, to tally the results on election night.
“This year, they had to scramble to find more people,” Marlin said.

Still, most were able to report results that evening.


New York’s June primary
The next experience with mail-in voting in New York, the June 23 primary for state and federal offices, didn’t go as well.

Turnout varied widely around the state. In some areas, the only primary contest was for delegates to the Democratic National Convention – a competition that attracted little interest given that Joe Biden was already the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

But voter participation was much stronger in areas that had congressional primaries, including several hard-fought Democratic contests in the New York City area as well as a Republican primary in the 19th Congressional District, which includes Columbia and Rensselaer counties.
In advance of the June primary, New York directed local elections boards to mail applications for absentee ballots to all eligible voters statewide.

The response was huge – and overwhelmed elections workers. Statewide, voters requested more than 1.7 million absentee ballots, and these mail-in ballots wound up accounting for almost 40 percent of all votes cast.

In New York City, some ballots were not mailed to voters until the day of the election. Delays in counting, mostly in New York City and Westchester County, led to election results not being certified until weeks later, on Aug. 6. Tens of thousands of ballots were rejected because they arrived after the deadline, lacked postmarks, or because voters neglected to sign or date the return envelopes.


Outpacing 2016 figures
Now, as the November election approaches, local elections officials are bracing for an even bigger surge.

In Rensselaer County, Republican Elections Commissioner Jason Schofield said that as of late August, more than two months before the general election, voters had already surpassed the number of absentee ballot requests for the last presidential election in 2016. That year, absentee ballots accounted for about 4,500 of the total of 65,000 votes cast in the county, he said.
In the June 23 Democratic primary, absentee ballots accounted for about half of the 8,911 votes cast in Rensselaer County. The number of voters who showed up in person at local polling places was 4,129, while another 437 cast ballots at the county’s three early voting sites, which were open for nine days in advance of the election, Schofield said.

Schofield said he’s seen no signs of fraud. He also pointed out that for the general election, “we’re not just mailing out ballots; voters have to request one.”

Some absentee ballots in the June primary were rejected for technical reasons, Schofield said. For example, voters who chose more than one candidate for the same office had their ballots disqualified. Others marked the ballot incorrectly, then put a sticky note on the ballot asking for the mistake to be corrected. If a voter makes a mistake, “you have to ask for a new ballot,” Schofield explained.

For the primary, absentee applications and ballot return envelopes were postage-paid. For Nov. 3, voters will have to request ballots and use their own stamps.

Despite concerns about the U.S. Postal Service, “I have faith in the mail,” Schofield said.
Voters who are worried about the reliability of the mail can call the county Board of Elections to confirm that their ballots were received.

“It takes about a minute to look up,” he said.
Voters also can ask a trusted person to deliver their ballots to an early voting site or local polling place, he said. Because of security concerns, he added, the county does not have drop boxes for ballots.

Absentee ballots for the general election won’t be available until Sept. 18, but voters can request them immediately.

“I encourage voters to get in their applications sooner rather than later, so we have time to process them,” Schofield said.


Correcting misconceptions
In Saratoga County, Republican Elections Commissioner Roger Schiera said more than 14,000 people cast absentee ballots for the June 23 primary, while only 3,500 voted in person on the day of the election. Another 125 visited one of the county’s three early voting sites.

Many absentee voters voted “over the counter,” filling out and turning in their ballot at the Board of Elections office on the day they requested it, Schiera said. Others mailed them back or dropped them off later at the board’s office or at polling sites.
Rejected ballots “were not a huge problem,” Schiera said.

He added that he’s heard two misconceptions about absentee voting. One is that absentee ballots are only counted if an election is close.

“No, we count every vote,” he said.

The other is that a voter’s party affiliation is listed on the return envelope. That isn’t true, he said.
Cuomo and the Legislature have made small changes to the rules in advance of the general election.

“The system worked for us in the primary,” Schiera said. “The numbers will be much larger for the general election. We’ll adjust our procedures for the new rules.”


Vermont breaks a record
In Vermont, absentee ballots helped smash the record for turnout in a state primary. More than 157,000 people voted in the Aug. 11 primary, easily beating the record of 120,132 set in the 2016 primary. The number of absentee ballots was about 114,000, a huge increase from 22,000 in 2018 and 17,000 in 2016.

Before the primary, all registered Vermont voters received postcards encouraging them to request vote-by-mail ballots, and more than 153,000 voters did so. (About 39,000 didn’t return their ballots, although some of them may have opted to vote in person.)

For the general election, the state plans to send absentee ballots to all of the state’s 486,000 registered voters. Voters will have the option of mailing their ballots, dropping them off at their polling place on Election Day, or placing them in a secure drop box at a city or town clerk’s office. Vermont doesn’t have in-person early voting sites.

“This isn’t about whether you can vote in person,” Secretary of State Jim Condos tweeted in August. “Absolutely you can. Polling places will be open on Nov. 3. It’s about whether or not you should or whether you have to vote in person. It’s about choices. More than 70 percent of voters in the last election chose not to.”


Bob Waltermeir of North Adams smiles after depositing his ballot for the Massachusetts state primary election in a drop box at North Adams City Hall in late August. Waltermeir was one of nearly 1 million voters statewide who cast ballots in advance of the Sept. 1 election.


Bob Waltermeir of North Adams smiles after depositing his ballot for the Massachusetts state primary election in a drop box at North Adams City Hall in late August. Waltermeir was one of nearly 1 million voters statewide who cast ballots in advance of the Sept. 1 election. Joan K. Lentini photo


Mail-in Massachusetts
In Massachusetts, the state passed a new law in July allowing registered voters to request what Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, called a “no-excuse early vote-by-mail” ballot for all 2020 elections.

In advance of the Sept. 1 primary, the state mailed ballot applications to all of the state’s registered voters. Completed applications were due at local elections offices no later than Aug. 26. As of Aug. 28, the Friday before the primary, more than 1.3 million voters had applied for ballots, O’Malley said.

Voters could request ballots for the general election on the same application.
“A lot of local officials haven’t started processing requests for November yet,” focusing first on sending out ballots for the primary, O’Malley said. A second mailing will go out this month to voters who haven’t already requested a ballot for Nov. 3.

City and town clerks administer elections in Massachusetts. Many city and town halls were closed earlier this year because of Covid-19 fears, and clerks had to obtain permission to reopen those sites for processing applications, O’Malley said.

Managing the primary is challenging because all four of the state’s recognized parties -- Democratic, Green-Rainbow, Libertarian and Republican -- have primaries, necessitating four separate ballots, O’Malley said.

“It will be a little easier in November,” she said. “There will be only one ballot.”
O’Malley advised voters to apply early – at least two weeks before Election Day -- and return their ballots as soon as possible. Ballots that aren’t in the mail at least seven days before the election, she said, should be hand-delivered to an early voting site, a town or city clerk’s office, or a polling place.

Town and city clerks may provide a secure drop box for early ballots. The Secretary of State’s website lists drop-box locations, O’Malley said.


Pandemic forces changes
Mann, the Skidmore College professor, said that in normal times, any changes to election systems ideally would start with local elections, where the stakes and turnout are low.
“There’s more time to figure it out if things go wrong,” he said.

But with the pandemic striking in a presidential election year, elections officials haven’t have that luxury.

Developing vote-by-mail systems requires a technical infrastructure of machinery and equipment, a human infrastructure for training elections workers, and a legal infrastructure that supports voting by mail, Mann said.

One factor that delayed the counting of votes in New York’s June primary was that election workers had to open every absentee ballot by hand, and officials had not realized how time-consuming that process would become when so many ballots were involved.

The state of Washington, which has been voting entirely by mail for years, has machines to open the ballot envelopes, Mann said.

In New York, where historically most people have voted in person and absentee ballots were difficult to obtain, votes cast at polling places are counted first, and absentee votes later, so election officials “aren’t trying to do two things at once,” Mann said.

Because the numbers of absentee ballots historically were small, they were only occasionally important in deciding the outcome of an election. So the delayed count of absentee ballots “never really bothered anyone,” Mann said.

But if most of the votes suddenly arrive in envelopes, the risks increase that the system breaks down.

“We’ve been taught by history to expect results on election night,” Mann said.
Despite the delay in counting ballots in some New York primary races, Mann said he had not seen any signs of serious irregularities in the election process.

“There’s no evidence of malfeasance, just workers overwhelmed by the quantity of ballots,” he said.

Massachusetts “has done a better job” of handling the shift to mail-in ballots, and Vermont also did well with its primary, Mann said.

“They maybe had a better sense of what it took,” he said.
Mann faulted Cuomo for not offering more guidance sooner on how the state will deal with the general election.

“He should have made a decision by Aug. 1,” Mann said.


Expert advice
Mann said experts from the academic world have been working with elections officials to ensure integrity, safety and equal access in the 2020 election through a joint initiative of Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The project “will connect retired elections officials with vote-by-mail experience to mentor current election officials” on proven best practices, Mann said.

Conducting mail-in elections involves “a steep learning curve,” he warned.
If elections administrators aren’t prepared, “it leads to ballots arriving late, a long time to count ballots, and not having machinery or secure boxes to store ballots once they’re received,” Mann said. “People have to solve problems on the fly.”

At the same time, elections officials “still have to run polling places,” Mann said. “They can’t put that on autopilot because of the Covid-19 protocols.”

Best practices include sending out user-friendly ballot applications, with simple instructions and essential parts of the form highlighted, Mann said. Ballots should also be easy to understand, with clear deadlines.

“Don’t confuse people or make it seem difficult,” Mann said.
The application and ballot should be postage-paid, Mann said.
“That seems small, but the reality is that a lot of people don’t have stamps,” he said. “It takes time and energy to do that. The burden is not huge, but it’s enough to discourage people.”
To avoid postmark problems, the return envelope should have a bar code allowing postal service machinery to sort and track the ballots.

“If it was scanned, we know the post office got it,” Mann said.
Voting by mail probably won’t increase the turnout in November by more than a few percentage points, Mann said. Bigger increases tend to occur in local and state elections, because these usually have attracted fewer voters. People are more likely to vote in those contests when it’s convenient, he said.

“There are fewer people who don’t feel their choice is consequential in a presidential election,” Mann said. “The people who mail in ballots are going to vote anyway.”
How will the expected surge in mail-in ballots affect future elections?

Mann said numbers of mail-in ballots probably will fall as the pandemic ebbs. But if state policies change to encourage voting by mail, the numbers might stay steady or even grow.
Pennsylvania, for example, allows voters to sign up to receive absentee ballots automatically for all elections. The state’s elections will “almost certainly be all-mail by 2028,” he said.
“Once two-thirds to three-quarters of voters are voting by mail, voting in person becomes cumbersome and difficult” for elections officials to continue, Mann said.

That’s the situation in California, where nearly 60 percent of voters were using mail-in ballots even before the pandemic, he said.

Some counties there are now switching to mail-in voting exclusively, Mann said, “and won’t go back.”