By Brad Friedman on 5/20/2008, 6:35am PT  

Some 33,500 registered voters in Oregon received two ballots in the mail for this year's primary election in the country's only 100% Vote-by-Mail (VBM) state. Though Secretary of State Bill Bradbury says he's confident the problem will be handled, and that no voter will get to cast two ballots, that snafu is a small concern compared to the larger ones presented by VBM.

Many Oregonians will tell you they believe their system is wonderful, yet many of the Election Integrity advocates on the ground there, including many we've spoke with at the Oregon Voting Rights Coalition, warn that the success of the state's VBM program is largely based on good procedures put in place by Bradbury, and which they fear may disappear, as they are not statutory, when he is someday no longer the state's SoS.

In the meantime, one of the unintended consequences of the success that EI advocates have had in helping to expose the failures of electronic voting systems, is that absentee and/or VBM systems have been growing in popularity.

For the voters, they believe such systems offer a "paper trail" not available to voters using touch-screen systems at the polling place. Many are unaware that their mailed-in ballots will be scanned by the same error-prone, easily manipulated optical-scan machines which handle paper ballots for precinct-based voting. But even worse, ballots mailed in, if they arrive safely, and are counted at all, are usually counted "in the dark," versus ballots scanned either at the polls on Election Day, or at county headquarters after the close of polls when citizens are often there to watch.

It is also much harder to track such ballots. Unlike ballots cast at the polls, where sign-in rosters can be compared to the number of ballots counted, it's far more difficult to match up such numbers after ballots are dropped into the black hole that is the U.S. Postal System.

For both major political parties, particularly the Democrats of late, the control they can have over ensuring voter "turnout" under such systems, and the increased participation that comes with it, is a big plus, and one of the reasons why they've been pushing mail-in elections of late.

But for those of us who prize transparency, security, privacy, and verifiable accuracy over partisan politics, all VBM elections remain a terrible idea. Here's why...

The truth is, VBM is, in many ways, far less transparent then voting at the polling place --- at least where paper ballots are available, as they still are in the majority of America's voting precincts --- and much more dangerous for a number of reasons beyond what we've already mentioned above.

We've been meaning to post such an article here for some time. Given today's all mail-in Primary Election in Oregon, and the inevitable huzzahs that are to come in the media, in short-sighted favor of such systems, today is as good a day as any to point out exactly what is wrong with Vote-by-Mail.

We'll make it simple, by drawing from six easy bullet points written by Colorado's Election Integrity advocate Claudia Kuhns, the executive director of the Public Integrity Project. The original version of her simple one-sheet may be downloaded here [PDF]. It was constructed when EI folks in Denver were recently fending off Democratic Party attempts to go all VBM in the state, following their woeful Republican Sec. of State Mike Coffman's absurd waffling over their e-voting systems. Coffman first decertified almost all of the state's voting systems after enormous vulnerabilities were discovered, only to reverse course (3 or 4 different times) over the ensuing weeks.

So here are the six quick, simple, easy-to-understand points, as detailed by Kuhns, as to why VBM is a very bad idea...

Paper Ballots, Not Mail Ballots
(Why all mail ballot elections are a bad idea)
  • Lack of Transparency - Ballots are mailed in secret and counted in secret on secret software. Ballots are counted at a central location that makes fraud on a large scale easier to accomplish and harder to detect. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse data shows that approximately a third of computer security breaches are done by insiders either intentionally or accidentally.
  • Lack of Security - Ballots in hundreds of thousands of locations with no security for two to three weeks. The chain of custody lacks security as the ballots are handled by many anonymous persons throughout the process. Any unmarked contest on a ballot can be marked by someone other than the voter when the ballots are opened for counting.
  • Voter Intimidation - Voting can be done as a group at churches or union halls with people looking over the voter's shoulder to make sure they vote "the right way."
  • Election Fraud - There is no way to be certain that the person who signed the envelope is the person to whom the ballot was sent. Ballots can be stolen from mail boxes while the voter is at work or away from home on an errand. Other tactics include vote harvesting by persons who show up at your door to "help" you vote. The elderly and those with disabilities are particularly vulnerable.
  • Potential for Ballot Mishandling - Post office or contract mailing company illegally forwards ballots, more than one ballot sent to voters, postal workers putting ballots in the trash. (All of these thing have happened in Colorado, 1100 ballots illegally forwarded in Douglas County, 214 voters received two ballots in Boulder County, ballots found in dumpsters at post office in El Paso County.)
  • Lack of Secret Ballot - When election judges check in your ballot, they can see how you voted when they match the inventory number on your ballot to the inventory number next to your name on the voter rolls. The Colorado Constitution guarantees your right to a secret ballot. [ed note: as do most other state Constitutions and elections code.]

Additional Resources:
"Why Mail Ballots Are a Bad Idea" by Charles E. Corry, Ph.D

UPDATE 11/9/08: For more information on why VBM is a dangerous idea, please see this follow-up article, posted after yet another round of support for VBM bubbled up again following the November '08 general election.

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