Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pile 2 + Pile 5 = Lots of room for improvement

Overlooked in the hoopla about improperly rejected absentee ballots, is the large number of properly rejected absentee ballots that appear to have been rejected for nothing more than what I would consider bureaucratic reasons. Using the results from precincts that have completed their sorting we see that almost 75% of the rejected absentee ballots, the combination of pile's 2 and 5, were rejected for bureaucratic or clerical reasons.

Here is a visual description of Minnesota's absentee ballot process for those not familiar with it and a look at the different reasons for an absentee ballot to be rejected.

Pile 1 - The voters name or address on the return envelope is different than the name or address on the absentee application. At the current rate these would equal a total of 795 votes.

Pile 2 - The voter's signature on return envelope and application do not match/or certificate not complete, usually meaning no signature. At the current rate these would equal a total of 5,881 votes.

Pile 3 - The voter is not registered and there is no registration card included in the return application. At the current rate these would equal a total of 1,379 votes.

Pile 3a - The voter is not registered, although there appears to be a registration card in the secrecy envelope. At the current rate these would equal a total of 41 votes.

Pile 4 - The voter already voted. At the current rate these would equal a total of 267 votes.

Pile 5 - Mistakenly rejected. At the current rate these would equal a total of 1150 votes.

There is some slop in these numbers right now. At current projections there will be a total of 9,314 absentee ballots that were rejected. The Secretary of State estimates that there are a total of 12,000 rejected ballots. So, if anything, these projections are conservative and underestimate the final numbers by as much as 30%.

When you look at those piles though what sticks out?

Pile 2 represents 63% of the rejected absentee ballots, clearly the dominate group. There is no distinction in the data between the two conditions that comprise pile 2, the signature not matching and the certificate not being filled out completely, but they are totally different errors that require the election official to make completely different types of judgments. Rejecting a ballot because the certificate is not complete is a bureaucratic decision, rejecting a ballot because the signatures do not match is an entirely subjective decision. It would be interesting to know what the split is between these two types of rejected ballots.

The problem of a certificate not being filled out points to less than effective ballot instructions. Most of these instances were people not signing the return envelope at all, which may be due to confusion about instructions not to leave any identifying marks on the ballots themselves. It shouldn't be too difficult to design better absentee ballot packaging to help reduce this number in the future. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie acknowledged this point on Almanac saying that absentee ballots need to be less complicated for voters and poll workers.

The other reason for ballots ending up in pile 2, a signature not matching, is a completely subjective judgment and one bound to be susceptible to human error and bias. It is impossible to apply consistent statewide standards to this matter; every person who compares two signatures is likely to have a slightly different opinion on their similarity. This is the number I am interested in finding out, how many of these rejected absentee ballots were rejected because the signatures didn't match.

If anything there needs to be clarification in the process for rejecting a ballot because of the signatures not matching, just so that at least some of the variables from county to county can be controlled. What I'm talking about, for example, would be a requirement that at least two election officials agree that the signatures do not match and then the ballot is forwarded to the State Canvassing board for a decision. It seems that any part of the process that is in any way subjective should involve as many different opinions as possible so that the correct decision can be arrived at.

It's good that pile 5 will apparently be counted, no one should have their properly cast vote not count because of a clerical error, that said there is little excuse for any ballots ending up in the fifth pile. In St. Louis County, for example, 127 absentee ballots were wrongly rejected because the signature line lacked a date. It wasn't till they started sorting their rejected absentee ballots that St. Louis County election officials bothered to find out what the state law actually says. It turns out that there is no requirement that the signature be dated. This is the sort of thing that shouldn't happen and is the direct result of a lack of training. Luckily this is an easy problem to solve.

On his Almanac appearance Ritchie blamed the problems we've seen with the absentee ballot system primarily on the vast increase in people voting by absentee ballot this year. What this would indicate to me is the need for Minnesota to follow the lead of states like North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and Georgia in offering early voting, which would ease strains on the absentee ballot system and help to decrease the long lines on election day.

It's too bad that so many votes will not be counted though. If changes are made to make the system better as a result, that will be a positive outcome, otherwise almost 6,000 ballots will be cast aside in one of the closest elections in Minnesota history for what would seem to be rather dubious reasons.

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