Americans have been able to vote by mail since the Civil War, and they’ve trusted that a mailed-in ballot would be counted — and counted correctly. Now the coronavirus pandemic is driving many questions around the November 2020 elections, and one of the most urgent is also one of the most basic: how to cast a ballot.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds that 67% of voters say they favor a mail-in voting option for this November because of COVID-19. But concerns surrounding the United States Postal Service and election fraud have weakened trust in the mail-in process.
To protect the health of Americans and preserve the legitimacy of U.S. elections, it is paramount that voters are able to vote by mail and have confidence that their ballot has been counted. States should act now to integrate a ballot locator and notification platform for mail-in votes into the election system.
Ballot-tracking technology removes any doubt for both voters and election officials. This technology is proven, effective and secure, and many U.S. states and counties are already providing voters the peace of mind from knowing that their vote has been counted.
Mail-In votes may determine the 2020 election
Voting by mail is expected to more than double in 2020. In the 2016 US presidential election, about 33 million ballots were cast by postal vote — roughly a quarter of all ballots cast. In 2020, 75% of American voters will be able to vote by mail, and about 80 million mail-in ballots are expected to be sent to election offices. All of these ballots must get counted. It is sometimes inaccurately claimed that absentee ballots are only counted if the race is close; in fact, all valid absentee ballots are counted even if they will not affect the outcome of an election.
The technology guarantees the privacy of the ballot box since it only tracks the ballot envelope, not the vote.
In 2020, all U.S. states will permit a form of mail-in voting, but the accessibility for voters will vary. Nine states and Washington, D.C., plan to send a ballot to every registered voter ahead of the election. Another 33 states will allow voters to send in an absentee ballot without a submitted excuse or listing the pandemic as an excuse. And in eight states, voters will need to provide an excuse to get an absentee ballot.
A Stanford University study found that participation increased by roughly two percentage points in three states that rolled out universal voting by mail from 1996 to 2018. It had no effect on partisan outcome and did not appear to give an advantage to any particular racial, economic or age group. However, mail-in voting does seem to be growing the rate of voter participation. Since 2009, states and counties using the technology developed by my company, BallotTrax, have seen a 66% voter turnout rate, compared to a 42% turnout on average.
How ballot tracking works
Regardless of how they receive their mail-in ballot, voters using ballot tracking have access to a process that is similar to any electronic package tracking. Initiated by a secure online sign-up, the technology guarantees the privacy of the ballot box since it only tracks the ballot envelope, not the vote. In states and counties using our BallotTrax platform, for example, each ballot’s envelope is printed with a unique intelligent mail barcode that offers complete visibility as to the ballot’s location and status, while the vote inside remains confidential.
Voters can sign up for text, email and voice notifications alerting them to the status of their ballot, from when it is printed and sent to when it is delivered and, most importantly, officially tabulated. Whether they return their ballot by mail or place it in a secure drop box or at a voting center, voters are notified of the status of their ballot at every step of the process, with alerts that are user-friendly and inclusive. Updates can be offered in different languages and voters can set notifications for time zones and do-not-disturb preferences.
In addition to monitoring the mail-in process, ballot tracking can also provide notification to voters when there are issues with their ballot. This means voters are able to “cure” or fix the problem in a timely manner so their ballot isn’t tossed to the side. Whether it’s confusion around a specific vote or a signature that doesn’t match the one on file, election officials can use the system to notify voters about the issue and suggest potential resolutions, ensuring the ballot can be cured in time for the election deadline.
2020 election calls for greater transparency and accountability
Along with providing greater flexibility over how ballots can be cast in this year’s election, voting by mail allows voters to take the time to get informed about their candidates and issues. This is especially important in districts with multiple referendums and local elections for judges, school board members and other important officials. Systems that offer different languages and multiple channels of communications open the voting process to greater numbers of eligible voters, including people with disabilities.
For election administrators, ballot tracking can streamline election procedures, increase communications and actually lower costs, while building voter confidence in the process. Election officials can even drill down into the tracking reports to see, for example, if ballots in a certain Zip Code are not being processed in a normal timeline. This near real-time reporting allows for mail delivery and ballot processing audits, increasing vendor accountability. In addition, being able to generate reports on the status of mail-in ballots allows officials to make more accurate forecasts, helping to reduce staffing costs, predict the volume of inbound calls, and improve customer service.
Ballot tracking is not new. My company has been around since 2009, with patent-pending technology that has tracked more than 60 million ballots in over 300 elections. Other ballot tracking options include state-run online look-up tools, as well as a mail-tracking platform provided by the nonprofit organization Democracy Works. If ever there was a time when ballot tracking options should be seriously considered by states and counties nationwide, a year marked by a pandemic would seem to be it.
Democracy requires citizen participation, and for this, we need to maintain the American public’s confidence in the voting system. With far fewer people able or willing to vote in person this year due to the pandemic, ballot tracking is one important tool for giving voters confidence that this year, their vote will count.
Steve Olsen is president of BallotTrax, which tracks the status of mail-in ballots.