Note: "Absentee Voting" and "Vote-by-Mail" have become specific terms with distinct meanings. I will use "mail-in" ballots to cover both meanings and when the distinction is unimportant.
The basic difference is that in Absentee Voting, you needed to request a mail-in ballot. In Vote-by-Mail, the Registrar of Voters decides who will receive ballots.
Before this election, Santa Clara County was a hybrid: You could request a mail-in ballot, but when a certain percentage of a precinct requested mail-in ballots, the whole precinct was converted to Vote-by-Mail.
I became familiar with mail-in balloting because of the counting of the ballots in the 2014 City Council election. The candidate I was supporting had a modest lead for the fifth of five seats during the first 4 days of counting. On the fifth day, the candidate in sixth place received an outsized spike of votes moving him into fifth. After that, the pattern of votes-received returned to the normal and expected variation. The processes for counting ballots precluded a financially viable way of doing a recount.(foot#1)
Before 2016, I would have accepted the Santa Clara County vote-count as credible in all but the closest of elections.(foot#2) In 2016, California legalized "ballot harvesting" ("AB 1921", AB is Assembly Bill), negating one of the key impediments to widespread mail-in ballot fraud. Basically, ballot harvesting allows large-scale fraud to be conducted by relatively few people, making it both more cost-efficient. It is also safer: With fewer people involved, they can be better trained to avoid the mistakes that can lead to detection. One bundling fraud was detected because the bundler got lazy and dumped all his ballots in one collection box. It wasn't just the number of ballots, but that the addresses of the voters covered too large an area to have credibly placed in a neighborhood collection box.
I regard any election that allows ballot harvesting to potentially having been rigged, with the exception of elections where the margin of victory is large and expected, that is, an election where fraud by ballot harvesting was unlikely to have been employed.
One purported reason for ballot harvesting was to provide help to the many people who don't have practical access to the USPS. Really, they claimed that. Another reason was that many people needed someone to fill out their ballot for them!
In the 2000 Presidential Election (Bush v Gore), the results may have been affected by ballot harvesting. One outrageous case I remember involved a (Republican) Party official taking a large quantity of mail-in ballots to the Registrar of Voter, but realizing that her signature as the conveyor was missing. The officials allowed her to sign them while sitting unsupervised at a table in the room where other ballots were being stored. The attempt to invalidate these ballots was rejected by the (Democrat-dominated) Florida Supreme Court under the prevailing theory that having votes be counted was more important than preventing fraud.
In the Stanford press release cited by the ^PA Weekly article^, Stanford Professor Nathaniel Persily who was quoted in the press release used by this article said that he has "concerns about ensuring that all mail-in ballots are counted. ... ... In Florida's primary election earlier this year, Persily and Stewart found that mail-in ballots cast by African Americans, Latinos, first-time voters and young people were significantly less likely to be counted because the ballot was received late, signatures were missing or they did not match the signature on file." For me, signatures not matching indicates a fraudulent ballot whereas Persily seems to regard it as one that should be counted based on the identity group of the person named on the ballot. In Florida (and California), the identity group may be a good proxy for partisan preference, but in other states, the fraudulent votes could trend Republican.
----Democrats are lying when they say vote-by-mail is safe----
"Lying" requires that the claim be known to be false, be intentional, and intended to deceive. In many situations, making a claim that you should have known to be false also qualifies as a lie.
Why do I say this? During the Republican attempts to have Voter-ID for in-person voting, Democrats argued that in-person voter fraud was extremely rare, and that most of the fraud was in mail-in voting. Simple Google searches will find many reports of mail-in voter fraud. Then there is a Commission report from 2008 or 2009 (misplaced the link; too hot to search for it) that detailed the many vulnerabilities of mail-in voting. Then there is a much-cited 2012 New York Times article.
A normally skeptical person should be asking himself why so many Democratic officials are pushing such an easily refuted lie?
Speculation is off-topic here.
----Discrediting/Delegitimatizing Election Results----
The mismanagement of Vote-by-Mail has been so comically bad in various Democratic primaries during COVID-19, that Republicans first pointed to it as illustrating the inherent problem with Vote-by-Mail, and then the procedural and logistic problems, and then that what happened goes so far beyond simple incompetence that it might be intended to create such doubts in the General (November) election results would be discredited/deligitimatized for many.
In primaries in New York and New Jersey, roughly 20% of the mail-in ballots were disqualified for various reasons. In Patterson NJ, there are felony charges for tampering and a judge ordered a re-do of the election. In the fragmentary accounts of the rejected ballots in NY, some of the reasons seem to have been to suppress the vote of certain groups of Democrats by the governing Democrats. In the aftermath, the NY Post published "^Political insider explains voter fraud with mail-in ballots^" (2020-08-29).
In Las Vegas, the (Democratic) government rejected the advice of the (Democratic) Registrar of Voters to use the USPS database of people who have moved to clean up the voter rolls. Reports in local media had apartment buildings awash in undeliverable ballots sitting in public areas where anyone could pick them up and submit bunches.
----Inability to process Vote-by-Mail----
The Santa Clara Country Registrar has spent many years building up the equipment, processes, and training to handle large numbers of mail-in ballots. However, many jurisdictions have no such capability. In talking to a relative back East, he said that his county rarely counted mail-in ballots: The margins of victory from the in-person voting was routinely larger than the total number of mail-in ballots. Even when the mail-in ballots needed to be counted to determine who won, they would stop counting as soon as there were too few remaining ballots to change the results.
Couldn't other Registrar of Voters be ready by November?
Implausible. One of the key requirements for Vote-by-Mail is that the Registrar of Voters has an accurate list of eligible voters and their addresses. Maintaining accurate voter rolls has been recognized as a crucial anti-fraud measure for decades. The usual excuse, often valid, was a lack of funding. When it came into high-focus after the 2000 election, the Federal government provide substantial funding for equipment and activities to secure the voting process. Yet many jurisdictions fail to use even the most basic means for maintaining the voter rolls, for example, DMV records, USPS address changes, the county's own death records, ... It is hard to argue that the government officials in those jurisdictions don't want to have not just inaccurate voter rolls, but bloated voter rolls. And why would that be? The cynic would say they value being able to commit large scale voter fraud to maintain their power.
----Is it fraud, incompetence, or an overloaded system?----
Answer: Does it matter?
Consider the box of ballots discovered in the post office too late to be counted. Was it inadvertent that they got shoved off into a corner and buried? Or was it intentional? In either case, it has potentially compromised the integrity of the election.
While it is easy to focus on bad actors, they may be the lesser of the problems. System failures may be bigger problems -- the current media focus is on the ability of the USPS to timely deliver ballots to voters
and then return them to the Registrar of Voters in time to be counted.
What failure rate would you deem acceptable? Recognize that a great many elections are decided by less than 1% of the vote.
----Overview of mail-in voting in Santa Clara County circa 2014----
"Absentee" voting increased as many people switched to requesting a mail-in ballot because of the long ballots. With numerous referendums and propositions, voting on the machines at the polling stations could be tedious and frustrating. Also, there were concerns and problems with multiple varieties of voting machines. The electronic ones didn't have a paper trail and the punch-cards seemed even more time-consuming and had to be double-checked for "hanging chad".
Many people with mail-in ballots didn't mail them in, but sealed them in the envelopes and deposited them in designated boxes at a precinct. Recently at many precincts, the people dropping off mail-in ballots greatly exceeded the number of people voting there. I would often find a short line of people doing drop-off and none of the machines being used.
The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters (RoV) has a database of signatures. As each envelope enters the system, a machine-readable code (QR code?) identifies who it was issued to and the automated system puts a photo of the signature on the envelope next to the signature from the database on a computer display. If the computer operator accepts that they are a good-enough match, the system sends that envelope to a machine that opens it an extracts the ballot. The system then sends the ballot to a machine to be counted.
If the operator questions the signature, that (unopened) envelope is sent to a bin for manual intervention (too many details to recount here).
Mail-in ballots that arrive at the ROV before election day have their signatures verified and are held in bins to be opened and counted as soon as the polls close. Aside: This is why on election night you will see partial results with "No precincts reporting" (the ballots from in-person counting). The counting of mail-in ballots that arrive after this take about 4-6 days for the ones that are easily verified, and other 7-10 days for the ones that require manual signature verification.
Mail-in ballots come with a detachable strip that has its ID number with instructions to remove it before putting the ballot in the envelope. The county RoV as a webpage where you can enter that number to see if your ballot has been counted. This year, the state is advertising that this capability will be available state-wide (we'll see).
In the RoV's 2014 presentation, I was impressed by the many sources used to maintain an accurate voter registration database, well beyond what was mentioned above (USPS, DMV, death notices).
This blog is intended only as an entry point into the debate. That debate is available elsewhere and is much too detailed and involved even for my very long blogs here. Comments on this blog are not the place to repeat and re-fight those arguments.
My first caution is that "Anecdotes are not data", that is, the situation at the RoV in one jurisdiction may be very, very different from that in another jurisdiction. For example, roughly 70% of Palo Alto voters use mail-in ballots versus the above example from the East Coast where only a trivial number are absentee ballots.
My second caution is that most of the national media is openly and aggressively partisan on matters related to the election. You need to look for alternative sources. However, this can be difficult.
• Most of the prominent "fact-checking" sites have long had significant political biases in their postings, to the extent that they are a great source for examples of rhetorical dirty tricks.
• Many of the social media sites are suppressing, if not banning, content that is contrary to their political biases. It appears to be roughly a case of the censors taking the attitude that what they believe is true and therefore contrary information is deceptive, harmful, hate speech ...
• Do not use Google for search on political issues. There are too many statements of its leadership about influencing this election and too many examples of political bias in search results for me to trust getting a reasonably unbiased set of responses from a Google search. While Google routinely blames "the algorithm", there are enough examples of whether the basis was encoded in manually populated tables. The ^DuckDuckGo^ search engine is widely recommended as an alternative.
The second caution is not open to debate here because it involves too many examples and the conclusion is your own personal subjective judgment. These are big enough topics that you should be able to get a good sense of them with (non-Google) web search.
1. 2014 City Council election questionable results:
My blog "^Election recounts an illusion?^", 2014-12-02.
2. Local vote count credibility:
I recall two votes in the late 1990s or early 2000s on tax measures that required two-thirds to pass. Throughout the counting, the vote hovered barely below the threshold and then -- lo and behold -- the counting of the final ballots, which were very few, went heavily against the trend and provided just enough votes to pass the taxes. Although there were lots of questions about this, the political establishment strongly backed the taxes and the results stood.
An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.
----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.
If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.