To safeguard our electoral process, Americans need to understand the realities of maintaining voter registration records and the potential chaos which is sure to result from states mailing out ballots to all “voters” recorded in their databases. Plans to have all voting occur by mail suffer not from the malintent of their proponents, but rather from a naively Pollyanna-esque hope that such a plan will not trigger significant, unintended, negative consequences. An unacceptable percentage of every official voter registration database is inherently out-of-date.
I served for roughly two years as the Voter Registrar for Harris County, Texas. Harris County, the home of Houston, Texas, is the third-most populous county in the United States, with a population ranking greater than half of the states in the country. At the time, there were just about two million voter registration records in our database. Today there are almost 2.4 million.
It is important to understand the distinct difference between voting absentee versus mailing ballots to the entire voter registration database. The former – absentee voting – involves those qualified to cast their ballots on an absentee basis specifically requesting a ballot from their voting administrator. In this request process, the absentee voter has specified their current, up-to-date mailing address. This process increases the probability that these absentee ballots are highly likely to arrive at the correct place as delivered by the U.S. Postal Service and improves the accuracy of current voter roll data. In contrast, all-vote-by-mail plans will send physical ballots to the large number of inaccurate, out-of-date addresses present in every voter registration database.
While many Americans live in the same home for virtually their entire adult lives, a notable percentage change residences frequently, especially in urban areas where there exist many options for where one lives. People move. People die. Prompt notification to voter registrars of these common occurrences is rarely high on people’s lists of things to do surrounding these events. Have you received mail for a former resident that is not directed to you? You are not alone. Per the U.S. Census Bureau figures, in any given two-year voting cycle, upwards of twenty (20%) percent of residents in a given jurisdiction may move.
Do the math on Harris County, Texas: that’s almost 500,000 out-of-date addresses.
My real world experience as voter registrar also contradicts the utopian view of voter registration that denies the reality of fake voter registrations and the legal-but-improbable registrations. During my tenure as Voter Registrar, we exposed a fraudulent voter registration program submitting thousands of fake voter registrations. While we caught a great number of these, it is inevitable that many others dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s sufficiently to cause them to be input to the voter rolls. In other instances, homeless people are registered using their “current address” at shelters or other random-but-valid addresses. By law, voter registrars are mandated to enter these records to the official voter rolls even though there is little chance these individuals will actually receive correspondence at that address months or years later.
Good solution. Bad moniker.
There exists a procedure for cleaning up and maintaining the accuracy of the voter rolls. Unfortunately, this is referred to as “purging” the database. Is there any context where the verb purge has a positive connotation? No. It sounds like you are going through a painful process of getting rid of something bad. We need to rename it something like “confirming” the voter roll and it should be positively characterized as prudently maintaining an up-to-date and accurate database. A voter registrar cannot unilaterally purge or confirm the voter database for no reason. There must be a trigger such as receiving notice of a person’s death, a voter registration card being returned by the USPS as undeliverable, or a voter not voting in multiple election cycles. Under all of the above scenarios, the voter record is not immediately deleted, but rather placed in “suspense” pending the voter returning a letter confirming they [are still alive and] want to remain registered or simply showing up in the next general election cycle and confirming they still wish to remain registered. Thus, it is a long process to remove, i.e., purge, someone from the voter roll, consequently, maintaining an inherent level of inaccuracy in the voter registration database.
Ironically, the same people always fighting cleaning up the voter roll per the law – and per common sense – are the same ones advocating for implementing all-mail-in-voting. If they had allowed for, and encouraged, proper maintenance of voter registration records there would be less argument against the all-vote-by-mail idea. However, as it stands, there exists an unacceptable percentage of bad addresses in every local voter registration database.
Let’s not make things worse…
Even under normal circumstances, the process for reviewing and accepting mailed-in absentee and provisionally-cast ballots is a less-than-scientific process. Everyone who argues for all-mail-in-voting should first be required to have participated in or observed a ballot review board process. Remember the hanging chads? Well, this process is often worse than that. Mailed-in absentee ballots need to be cross-checked against the original, signed voter registration application. A significant number of the signatures on the ballots are obvious and glaring mismatches. Further complications are compounded by late delivery with timely postmarks, late delivery no postmark, damaged ballots, tampered ballots, etc. This review is a manual, time-consuming process and is often very subjective. With absentee and provisional ballots only being a relatively tiny percentage of the overall votes cast, their review is a doable task. However, quickly doing it for hundreds of thousands of ballots would be a nearly herculean task. Mailing ballots to all registered voters simply exacerbates a process already rife with the opportunity for error.
At a very optimistic minimum there are inherently at least five (5%) percent bad addresses in any given voter registration database. Hopeful optimism places that figure over at least ten (10%) percent. And, pessimistically but most realistically, the bad addresses are over twenty (20%) in major urban areas. How often are elections decided by a smaller margin than these percentages? Mailing ballots to all of those on the voter roll will result in these same percentages floating about as tempting fodder for unscrupulous actors willing to do anything to ensure their preferred candidate wins the election.
For those who qualify for absentee voting, they still have that option available. In person voting does not suppress anyone’s ability to vote and states are taking steps to ensure there is plenty of opportunity for in-person voting. Texas has extended the Early Voting period to three (3) weeks and voting administrators have implemented every recommended health safety precaution possible. In-person voting is safer than going to a grocery store.
2020 has given us enough problems. It does not make sense to create more problems by implementing all-mail-in voting.
Leo Vasquez lives in Houston, Texas, is a business strategy advisor and is an advocate for evidence-based practices and good government. You can find him on Twitter at @LV_HTX or visit his website, leovasquez.com for more information.
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