APTOPIX Election 2018

Election workers begin to sort a new batch of ballots collected earlier in the day from drop boxes at the King County Elections office Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Renton, Wash. Voters in Washington all vote only by mail.

The 201,653 mail ballots requested statewide, so far, for the Nov. 3 presidential election is more than the total number of votes cast in Baton Rouge in the last presidential election.

Or to continue the comparison of how large the numbers are this year, absentee mail-in ballot requests this year outnumber the total number of votes cast in the 2016 presidential election in Jefferson Parish, the state’s second largest pool of voters; 22% more numerous than New Orleans, and twice as many as Lafayette.

A lot of elections officials and observers fear that voters unfamiliar with the exacting process may make mistakes and their votes won’t count. The Democratic Party, League of Women Voters and other organizations are launching detailed “how to” campaigns.

Voting in person, as many will head off to do starting Friday – early voting continues until Oct. 27 – requires a photo ID and a signature then press a few buttons, always with help hovering nearby. Mail ballots have complicated instructions: fill in the circle, don’t check it; use blue or black ink; seal ballot in envelope; sign the ballot's affidavit flap where indicated; provide mother’s maiden name; make sure a witness also signs the tear-off affidavit flap on the outside the ballot envelope that you don’t tear off. Then, with the ballot envelope sealed, the whole shebang goes into a second envelope. And, yes, to mail a mail-in ballot requires a stamp, probably two.

“The Secretary of State, to his credit, put a very good video on his website that explains how you have to do that to make sure your vote gets counted,” said Shreveport state Rep. Sam Jenkins, who heads the House Democratic caucus. “It takes you to some extremes to explain what you have to do.”

The Secretary of State’s 4-minute video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzD8oKQUHas

Katie Bernhardt, who chairs the Louisiana Democratic Party, plans an email blast to share the Secretary of State’s video to a wide audience. Party staff also have been given a checklist to help callers with questions.

In addition to selecting the president, Louisiana voters also will be choosing a U.S. Senator, all six congressmen, two Public Service Commissioners, two Louisiana Supreme Court justices, a handful of state appellate court judges, all district judges and prosecutors, as well as many local offices, seven constitutional amendments and local option in each parish on whether to allow sports betting.

“The witness’s signature, that’s the biggie. That’s really the most common reason for rejecting a ballot,” said East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters Steve Raborn. His office staff will vet the returning ballots – they need to be hand by 4:30 p.m. Nov. 2 – as they arrive. If the mail ballots arrive early enough and Raborn’ s staff sees a mistake, they’ll mail a letter asking the voter to come fix it.

Raborn’ s staff flags those missing signatures and other faults. Those problems, if not cured, go into a stack for the parish Board of Elections Supervisors – which include for Baton Rouge: Raborn, Clerk of Court Doug Welborn, an appointee of the governor’s, a representative from the Republican Party and another from the Democratic Party. Elections supervisors review the flagged ballots and decide. If rejected, an explanation is attached to the ballot, which is locked away, with copy going to the Secretary of State and another to the voter.

The Louisiana House Thursday approved allowing elections officials four days, instead of one, for that preprocessing step. Under current law, processing must begin the day before election day. On election day, the mail ballots are fed into a scanner, operated by an employee of the Secretary of State, that counts the votes.

In the summer election, 91 faulty Baton Rouge mails ballots were corrected in time to be counted.

Four years ago, in the last presidential election, 8,021 East Baton Rouge Parish voters requested mail ballots and 5,892 were returned, Raborn said. Of that number, 68 ballots were rejected, mostly due to lack of witness signature though a few were not signed by the voter and handful were missing the affidavit flap.

His office sent roughly 21,000 absentee by-mail ballots for the presidential election now 17 days away.

Of the 63,016 absentee ballots cast statewide in the November 2016 presidential election, 6,051 were rejected, most of which – 1,263 – arrived after the deadline. Another 697 had no witnesses, 283 were without a voter signature or a verifiable signature, according to the Secretary of State.

By definition, a mail ballot is, well, mail and requires postage. How much really depends on how many races are in a voter’s precinct – a large number of races translates into a lot more pages, therefore a heavier piece of mail. Raborn went to the post office to price the various two-page mail ballots his office will be handling. The amounts came in costing 70-cents. A standard “forever” postage stamp costs 55-cents, so two would more than cover the total amount, though registrars report receiving ballots with inadequate postage.

Louisiana law allows absentee voting to registered voters who are 65 years or older, people out of the parish on election day, or are disabled and have been accepted into the disabled program. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and legislative Republicans balked at expanding access to mail ballots for the presidential election. But U.S. District Judge Shelley Dick, of Baton Rouge, ruled Sept. 16 that the state must give absentee mail ballots to anyone saying they were at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of underlying medical conditions; were subject to a quarantine order; were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking medical confirmation; or were caring for someone who was isolated because of the virus.

Ardoin accepted the procedures set out by Dick’s order for the Nov. 3 election and Dec. 5 runoff. Earlier this week, he appealed asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule after the elections on Dick’s interpretations of the underlying laws.

Reliance on mail ballots has changed the complexion of the presidential election nationwide, David Becker, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Election Innovation & Research, said Thursday in a video conference.

“As we sit here right now, about 13% of 2016 turnout have already been cast,” Becker said.

North Carolina had 533,000 mail ballots returned and accepted – about 40% of mail ballots sent out in that state, he said. Early voting started Thursday.

Florida already has cast 2 million votes by mail and early voting starts there on Monday.

“I’ve never seen anything remotely close to this,” he said.

“Mail-in voting can be challenging,” Becker said. He calls mail-in balloting as voting without a safety net and urges voters to read the instructions carefully, even though in many states the requirements seem counterintuitive. “If you’re left with an envelope after you’re finished, go back, and read instructions again … make sure nothing is left out of the envelope,” he said. In Pennsylvania, a mail ballot won’t count if it is in the wrong envelope.

“If you have any doubts,” Becker said, “you can just go vote in person.”

Tips for voting by mail ballot:

Read all instructions before voting.

  • If you have internet access, watch the Secretary of State’s YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzD8oKQUHas. This video shows how to properly complete and return your ballot.
  • Some ballots are printed on front and back.
  • When marking your ballot, completely fill in the ovals next to your choice(s).
  • Place all pages of the voted ballot in the ballot envelope and seal it, but do not remove the flap.
  • Complete all information on the ballot envelope’s affidavit flap, including the date of election and mother’s maiden name.
  • Sign and print your name on the ballot envelope in the presence of a witness. Anyone may serve as your witness.
  • Your witness must sign and print their name on the ballot envelope.
  • Do not remove the affidavit flap from the ballot envelope.
  • Place the sealed ballot envelope in the return envelope that is addressed to the Registrar of Voters.
  • Ballots require first-class postage on return envelope. The amount varies depending on how many pages the ballot contains. Ballots that are two pages long require about 70 cents in postage. (Forever stamps are worth 55-cents each.)
  • If you prefer, you may hand-deliver your voted ballot to any location of the Registrar of Voters Office (or any early voting site during the early voting period). No person except an immediately family member of the voter may hand-deliver more than one marked ballot to the Registrar of Voters.

Check that the ballot has been received by the Registrar of Voters using the Secretary of State’s voter portal at voterportal.sos.la.gov.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.