U.S. citizens are expected to vote on November 3 like never before, with the number of Americans voting by mail expected to rise amid the coronavirus pandemic.

While President Donald Trump has largely sought to keep attention on unsubstantiated claims that postal voting leads to higher fraud rates, supporters of the vote have instead highlighted a range of changes in the way states process votes by mail which they believe could result in fewer ballots being rejected. and shorter wait times for states to reach their final count after election day.

While analysts say there is no evidence that postal voting leads to higher fraud rates, postal voting exhibits higher ballot rejection rates than other forms of voting.

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While more than half of the electorate is expected to vote by mail, attention has turned to the patchwork of state policies and laws that determine the parameters of such a vote, with some states quickly adopting what is considered best practice for this year’s unusual election. .

“This is electoral reform on an unprecedented scale,” Charlotte Hill, a political researcher and doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley, told Al Jazeera. “We have never seen so many election laws change so quickly and so substantially in modern American history.”

These changes are perhaps most significant in the so-called battlefield states, which saw razor-thin margins of victory in 2016 and are expected to see the same in 2020.

A recent analysis of mail-in voting in battlefield states by the Associated Press news agency found that while the rejection rates of mail-in ballots remain the same as in the 2020 primaries, up to three times more voters could be disenfranchised in key states than in 2016. The AP analyzed data from Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.

In 2016, Trump won the state of Michigan by just 0.3 percentage point, or 10,704 votes. In the August primary, which saw a turnout of around 2.5 million people, 10,694 postal votes were rejected, according to the office of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

“The majority of disenfranchised voters in last week’s state primaries could easily have had their votes counted with small changes in the law,” Benson’s office said in a statement. Press release after primary.

Rejected ballots

Three laws introduced in Michigan’s Republican-controlled State House and Senate broadly summarize the reforms being sought by voting rights advocates.

It is asked that ballots that are postmarked on polling day still be counted if they are received after polling day (in the case of this bill, two days after, although some Reformers have called for longer lead times). Another calls for strengthening the requirements for election officials to contact voters if there are problems with their ballots to give them a chance to correct them. The third asks election officials to start processing ballots before election day.

“With turnout and mail-in votes set to double or even triple in November, we could envision tens of thousands of disenfranchised Michigan citizens if the legislature fails to act,” Benson said in a statement after. the primary.

Of the rejected ballots in the state, the vast majority, 6,405, were rejected because they arrived after election day, according to Benson’s office.

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Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and Florida currently only accept mail-in ballots that arrive at the end of election day, though legislation and lawsuits in most states are seeking to change that. North Carolina counts ballots that arrive within three days of polling day, provided they are postmarked on polling day.

In Pennsylvania, if the turnout is the same as in 2016 and the rejection rate remains the same since this year’s primary, nearly 43,000 state voters could be disenfranchised this fall, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. Trump won the state by 44,200 votes in 2016.

“In many states, the latest you could [send] your ballot may not result in your ballot counting if it is delayed in the mail, ”said policy researcher Hill, referring to an ongoing dispute between state election officials and the Minister of American Post Louis DeJoy.

In August, the United States Postal Service (USPS) sent letters to a majority of U.S. states warning, amid the newly introduced economy measures, that it may not be able to deliver all bulletins. to vote in time taking into account the deadlines of States to request a postal vote. and their final voting deadline.

DeJoy has since suspended those measures and assured lawmakers the USPS can be trusted with the election, amid a swarm of lawsuits against the agency.

Arguments over whether ballot boxes, which allow a postal voter to deliver the ballot while remaining socially distant, should be provided in all districts also defined the legislative and legal battles leading up to the 3 November.

Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida do not currently impose drop boxes uniformly in all districts.

Signature rejections

The other major reason for the rejection of the ballot, according to the researchers, is the problem of signatures. This usually relates to forgetting to sign the envelope in which a ballot is sealed – and, to a lesser extent, to signatures not matching those recorded.

Currently, at least two closely watched battlefield states, North Carolina and Wisconsin, still require a witness to sign a mail-in ballot, creating what Hill describes as an “onerous additional requirement” that raises concerns. particular difficulties during the coronavirus pandemic.

“With the special circumstances that arise from COVID, at least having an emergency provision that says that for this election year those requirements will be lifted, would go a long way,” she added.

In Wisconsin, about 23,000 ballots were rejected in the 2020 primary, according to investigative news site APM Reports. Trump won the state by 22,748 votes in 2016.

About 13,834 were rejected due to issues with signatures from voters or witnesses, both of whom are required to sign the ballot envelope, according to APM Report analysis. Witnesses should also write their address on the envelopes.

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Lawsuits in Wisconsin and North Carolina have sought to remove this requirement.

Lawsuits across the country have also sought to create more reliable processes that allow election officials to notify – and allow sufficient time – a voter to repair a postal ballot.

While Florida and Arizona have relatively robust ballot “healing” processes, advocates have called for tightened procedures in Wisconsin and Michigan, with the latter’s law stating that a voter must be contacted and given the opportunity to correct if time permits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Meanwhile, in August, a federal judge ruled that residents of North Carolina should be given the ability to fix their ballots, while rejecting other changes requested by Democracy North Carolina and the League of Women Voters of North. Carolina. A subsequent North Carolina Democratic Party lawsuit claims the ballot fixing process does not go far enough.

Pennsylvania advocates are currently seeking provisions that uniformly require election officials to contact voters and give them an opportunity to resolve a signature issue with a ballot.

Counting delay

Becoming part of concerns about giving voters the opportunity and time to correct their ballots are concerns about long waits for final results as states grapple with high rates of postal votes.

Several states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, do not allow the processing of postal ballots before election day.

Meanwhile, Florida allows processing and counting to begin 22 days before November 3, and North Carolina can start processing on the fifth Tuesday before election day and can start counting two weeks before. Arizona, meanwhile, can begin processing and counting 14 days before election day.

During its June primaries, Pennsylvania experienced delays due to a 17-fold increase in postal voting from the 2016 general election. In June, about half of the three million voters voted by mail .

Observers fear such delays could be exacerbated in the general election, leading to a potentially busy post-election period, especially as some accuse Trump of having already laid the groundwork to challenge the results.

“No one in Pennsylvania wants this to be Florida in 2000. And that includes Republicans and Democrats, Independents, everyone,” said Jon Delano, political editor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania TV station KDKA and assistant professor. of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Al Jazeera, referring to the 2000 general election, in which Florida’s problems with the polls delayed the final election results by more than a month.

The tightening is expected to be particularly felt in states that are expected to experience a sharp increase in postal voting, despite historically low postal voters in previous elections.

In North Carolina’s 2018 legislative election, just under 3% of voters successfully voted by mail, according to the U.S. Electoral Assistance Commission. Wisconsin had just over five percent of the mail-in votes in that election. Pennsylvania had just under four percent.

“It’s fair to say that the most critical election of our lives is taking place in the midst of a pandemic, as many states like Pennsylvania are implementing whole new voting systems,” Delano said.

“You have a cascade of circumstances that lead to great uncertainty as to how this process will work,” he added. “It could be that everything works very well, but with an expected number of six to seven million voters [in Pennsylvania], there is always a lot of room for pips ”.

Emily Sumlin contributed to the research.

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