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Mail-in Voting in the US

Published by marco on

COVID-19 has made mail-in voting more relevant than ever for US elections. In other countries, this would not be an issue, as mail-in voting doesn’t pose any particular technical, organizational, or bureaucratic hassles or threaten to lead to widespread disenfranchisement. Those are normal countries, like Switzerland, where a majority of the population votes by mail about five times per year.

The US is different: even the simplest tasks become difficult for a nation afraid to commit to spending time or money on anything but elites. The excellent reporting of Greg Palast is the gold standard for electoral malfeasance in the US, a job he’s been doing diligently since before the miscarriage of justice that was the 2000 US presidential election debacle decision, after which he really got down to work. A frequent collaborator of Palast’s, cartoonist Ted Rall (also an excellent author and chronicler of injustice in his own right), recently published Mail-in Balloting, the 12th Amendment and Impending Doom, which summarizes the situation as follows,

“[With a] 16-fold increase [of mail-in ballots] over 2016, [t]he real issue is that the ballots may not be counted on time, triggering the insanity of the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The date to remember is December 14th, when the delegations of the Electoral College meet in their respective states. […] Each delegation can only certify their state’s vote counts if they are 100% complete […] If the state fails to certify on time, its electoral college votes aren’t counted.”

If no candidate gets the required 270 electoral votes, then the 12th Amendment stipulates that the Congress selects the president and the Senate selects the vice president. They must select from the available candidates. The relevant text is

“The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President.”

The Republicans control the Senate—and are overwhelmingly expected to continue doing so—and will select Trump. The Vice President continues to be irrelevant. It is unlikely that even a strongly oppositional Vice President could influence the President unduly (e.g. by breaking ties in Senate votes). Mitch McConnell will continue to prevent any votes of relevance coming before the Senate in the first place.

Voting in the US is already rife with undemocratic practices, from long lines to closed voting centers to unconstitutional poll taxes and identity checks and throwing people off of the voting rolls. Though mail-in voting avoids some of these problems, it’s hard to feel that the envelope will find its destination and actually be counted.

Actual Mail-in Voting

I’d recently gotten an email from the elections board in Queens (where I’d last declared residence in the States before I moved to Switzerland) with instructions on how to get my “electronic ballot”, which seemed promising. What this meant was that, were I to succeed in identifying myself, I would be able to download PDFs for the ballot and the envelopes.

As shown above, the “electronic” mail-in ballots include a PDF for the envelope as well as instructions for performing the origami required to protect this vessel of democracy on its journey across the ocean to NYC. I’d done this a couple of years back and the construction feels pretty shaky—not least because all of the templates are fitted for the LTR format, a paper size found only in the US. These are mail-in ballots meant for people around the world, who have no access to LTR-sized paper.

Happily, a real-life, pre-printed ballot and envelope arrived in the mail today, so I was able to fill out my absolutely ginormous ballot without any printing or origami. The ballot is a long sheet of paper in several of the most-common native languages of Queens: English, Spanish, Chinese, and Bengali.

The paper is quite grandiose considering I am able to choose a presidential candidate—from Donald Trump/Mike Pence (Republican), Joe Biden/Kamala Harris (Democrat), Howie Hawkins/Angela Nicole Walker (Green), and Jo Jorgenson/Jeremy Cohen (Libertarian)—and a single Congressional seat (Grace Meng vs. Thomas Zmich).

Despite it looking foolproof, they still, somehow, managed to make the super-simple instructions conflict with the actual ballot. The instructions, shown below, say to “[m]ark the oval to the left of the name […]”


The ballot, though, includes a single oval above the names of the candidates. The oval is to the left of the column, but not to the left of the “nombre de su selección”.

 List of presidential candidates

The mailing envelope, shown below, includes “US postage paid”—even though they’re sending these materials all over the world. Presumably, if you’re in the military, whatever base you happen to be on counts as “U.S. Mail”[1], but I had to pay CHF2.- to mail in my ballot.

 Mailing envelope

On a final note, from the article above,

“Mail-in ballots are manually opened and signatures must be visually compared, sometimes several times, to Board of Election records.”

It is nearly inconceivable that whatever signature the Board of Election has on record for me—from almost 20 years ago—matches the deteriorated scrawl that my signature has become in an age where I hardly ever pick up a pen.

Still, were my vote to actually make it across the ocean, arrive in Queens by November 3rd (or postmarked before the election and arriving within ten days of election day), actually be opened and counted—they reserve the right to leave absentee ballots uncounted if the result is already “clear”[2]—and were my signature to match whatever they have on file, my vote will be counted in a state (New York) where the result is a foregone conclusion: Joe Biden will win New York State’s electoral votes.

[1] Even on the same envelope, there is no consistency in how to abbreviate United States, with both US and U.S. making an appearance.

This is an even more insidious practice when you remember that smaller parties, like the Green Party, must cross the 5% threshold in an election year in order to benefit in the next election from many of the advantages the Democrats and Republicans enjoy over them. This has never happened, and likely never will, due in no small part to a plethora of such undemocratic practices. See the following video for more information,

Citizen vs. Government (Vol. 4) (YouTube)