Vote-by-Mail concerns: Integrity, Accuracy, Credibility | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

A Pragmatist's Take

By Douglas Moran

E-mail Douglas Moran

About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

View all posts from Douglas Moran

Vote-by-Mail concerns: Integrity, Accuracy, Credibility

Uploaded: Sep 8, 2020
The article here "Mail-in voting has no partisan advantage, Stanford researchers say: Studies find increased turnout, particularly for blue-collar workers, young people" (Sept 8) reports on a study that addresses the wrong question. Partisan advantage should be irrelevant to the electorate. The most important questions surround the integrity of the election, whether it is credible to the electorate that the results are accurate and correct.

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.
We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


 +   19 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of another community,
on Sep 9, 2020 at 9:26 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

Concurring with your assessment Mr. Moran.

I vote via absentee ballot as I am a registered voter & allowed to do so.

A generalized mass mail voting procedure involving just about ANYONE creates too many inherent problems of its own including a delayed vote count due to mail delivery and receipt, the necessity of authenticating millions of mailed-in ballots and potential ballot-stuffing...all of which could potentially delay accurate election results for weeks or even months.

The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to this voting alternative & of course on-line voting is an absurd concept as it would introduce a plethora of problems both technical as well as ethical.

Absentee and/or polling place voting (exercising proper Covid-19 spacing protocols) should remain the only allowable voting alternatives.

And as far as ethical advantage/disadvantage of mail-in voting to the Republican & Democratic POTUS candidates...all it amounts to is that both candidates want to assure that their supporters vote for them (via ease & convenience) and/or to dissuade others from voting for their opponent. This mindset is not a legitimate reason for mail-in voting.

Lastly and as per my experience...the USPS is not exactly the most reliable or timely method of delivery. One year I received a Christmas card that was originally mailed from Los Angeles (with a late November postmark) to someone residing in Ontario, Canada and how it ended up in my mailbox (in January no less) is baffling as there was a postal zip code included on the assist both Canadian & American postal carriers who apparently cannot read.

 +   2 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 9, 2020 at 12:33 pm

Resident is a registered user.

Thanks Doug, I read the Stanford article and my BS radar was going off. It's not about partisanship, it's about integrity. Unfortunately, Stanford itself is partisan.

At least we have red-pilled Moran as the voice of reason on PAO.

Unfortunately the partisanship is so strong and mail-in voting is so nebulous it feels like a doom clock till election day. The election will almost certainly be disputed and it can only spiral out of control from there... we ain't seen nothing yet

 +   4 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Sep 9, 2020 at 3:05 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

This isn't intended as support for the Stanford study (which I haven't read), but if we could conclude that mail-in voting doesn't have a partisan bias, members of both parties would have cover to work to ensure its integrity. Without that, one or both parties have incentive to claim it's invalid or even to work to make it invalid.

 +   2 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 9, 2020 at 4:24 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Excellent point.

The problem is highlighted by commenter "Resident" (second comment): "my BS radar was going off".

We are in a sad state of affairs where there are so many instances of University professors, researchers, and administrators putting partisanship far ahead of professionalism that the academic culture is seen to be broken by many. This is reinforced by many academics not bothering to try to conceal their bias and partisan agendas -- instead of their being criticized or censured, they are widely cited.

In the current environment, I suspect that many may dismiss the research report as shilling for the Democrats' agenda.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Michael O., a resident of Gunn High School,
on Sep 9, 2020 at 5:43 pm

Michael O. is a registered user.

[[Blogger: deleted as ad hominem attack + incompetent.
The commenter attacks my opinion piece for having an explicitly identified statement of my personal opinion. The horror! The horror!
Such silliness indicates a person who is so partisan that he is unable to participate in a civil discussion.

Update: Speculation that he doesn't understand the huge difference between "pragmatic" and "unbiased".

 +  Like this comment
Posted by David Ross, a resident of Portola Valley,
on Sep 9, 2020 at 6:57 pm

David Ross is a registered user.

I would be surprised if California's m mail-in ballot percentage (of all votes cast) changes significantly in tjis election as compared to 2018.

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 9, 2020 at 7:39 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: David Ross

Readers: Be aware that California is Vote-by-Mail in 2020 (ordered by Gov. Newsom) and that there will be more drop-off locations open longer. So the question on "mail-in" ballots is one of how they are returned: USPS or drop-off.

In our county, the drop-off locations open on Oct 5 -- the same day that ballots start to be mailed out (presumably, the ballots dropped off on that first day will all be forgeries). The unknown is whether the drop-off boxes will be set up in a way that people feel comfortable going to them.

Official Ballot Drop Box and Vote Center Sites Information (scrolled to Palo Alto's entry)

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Sep 10, 2020 at 5:40 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

The primary vote in Santa Clara county did not print the final results for the Jerry Hill replacement. A lot of votes went in early and then the D candidates were competing between themselves. So the problem begins when the papers are tabulating the results on a regular basis and the competitors can see how they are doing - then the results start changing.

Sorry - have no faith in the "system". The rules of who can legally vote always appear to change based on how much leverage some groups exercise. As to the experts from SU they are working on a grant to study the issue and grants have a tendency to say what the result is suppose to be. And they are getting paid to "affirm" the desired end results.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sunshine, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 14, 2020 at 1:37 pm

Sunshine is a registered user.

Good one, Doug.
After I requested absentee ballots for several years, the election people decided that I needed a permanent vote-by-mail status. I had been traveling so much for a few years that I could not count on being in town for voting. Before that, I also often requested mail ballots because of my work hours that requited me to leave home early and not return late--such is our commute society.
My hope is that at least in this area we could figure out how to make the vote honest. Guess I have my head in the sand. As we have seen on numerous occasions, some people will do anything to get what they want.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Get the most important local news stories sent straight to your inbox daily.

Mountain View gets new dhaba-style Indian restaurant
By Elena Kadvany | 4 comments | 24,939 views

Demystifying heat pump water heaters
By Sherry Listgarten | 22 comments | 6,070 views

Inaugural reflections
By Diana Diamond | 35 comments | 2,899 views

Know a Book Agent or Publisher?
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,791 views

Thank you California Academy of Sciences!
By Cheryl Bac | 1 comment | 1,711 views