Election 2020 Voting Worries

Letter carriers load mail trucks for deliveries at a U.S. Postal Service facility in McLean, Va., July 31. Delays caused by an increase in voting by mail may contribute to public doubts about the results. The public might not know the winner of the presidential race on Election Day because of a massive shift to voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s because mail ballots take longer to count because of security procedures and laws in some states that limit when they can be processed.

Last week, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin did as he said he would and appealed the court order that established how Louisiana is voting in the Nov. 3 election.

He’s not challenging the process that U.S. District Judge Shelley Dick, of Baton Rouge, put in place for the election that began Friday with early voting. Ardoin asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the underlying law on which Dick extended early voting and expanded the use of absentee mail ballots for COVID-19 reasons.

Lawsuits and a narrative that widespread use of mail ballots will lead to voter fraud have been hallmarks of this election season.

“A lot of people cheat with mail-in voting,” President Donald Trump has tweeted repeatedly.

During the recent debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Trump launched a fusillade of unsubstantiated claims to support his fraud argument.

For instance, Trump claimed a West Virginia postal employee was “selling ballots.” What actually happened was the worker changed the party affiliation on five ballot-request forms from Democratic to Republican, according to West Virginia’s Secretary of State Mac Werner, a Republican. The carrier pleaded guilty in July.

“There is no fraud. Just because someone said it doesn’t make it so,” Associate Professor Kerry Haynie, director of the Duke University Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Social Sciences, said Wednesday. “It’s another effort to muddy the waters, to make it less likely that people will come out and vote and trust the system.”

Using $20 million set aside by the Trump campaign, Republicans in more than a dozen states have legally challenged different aspects of mail-in voting procedures. They’ve had mixed results but have found recent success in arguments that extended deadlines lead to voter fraud. Federal courts in Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Georgia limited the counting of mail ballots that were sent before the deadline but won’t arrive until after the election.

For Louisiana, that probably doesn’t mean much. But the presidential race is so close in Wisconsin and Georgia those late ballots may decide who wins.

Louisiana Republicans, in general, have embraced Trump’s contention about mail ballots.

Voting largely along party lines, the GOP legislative majority stripped from Louisiana’s plan the ability of voters concerned about COVID-19 to request to vote by mail. The reasoning, in the words of Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican who chairs the Senate elections oversight committee, is that limiting mail ballots “balances the right to vote while maintaining the integrity of our election processes.”

Judge Dick returned those provisions in her order.

But how widespread is voter fraud in Louisiana?

The Heritage Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., has been tracking the issue nationwide and found a total of five incidents since 2002 in Louisiana — together involving less than a dozen ballots out of the tens of millions cast by registered Louisiana voters.

In the latest incident, Delores M. “Dee” Handy, a 69-year-old from Crowley, was found guilty of failing to mark two November 2018 absentee mail ballots the way two elderly voters had wanted. On Sept. 24 she was sentenced to a suspended jail term and placed on two years of probation, with the condition that she does not assist anyone else with absentee voting.

More than 200,000 absentee mail ballots have been requested by registered Louisiana voters wanting to participate in the Nov. 3 election — most of which were requested under existing law before Judge Shelley’s expansion took place. Mail ballots can be requested through Oct. 30. That’s way more than the previous record of 63,016 mail ballots, set in the previous presidential race four years ago. This year’s mail ballot requests, so far, amount to roughly 10% of the 2 million votes cast in November 2016.

Mistakes are to be expected, particularly considering that voters unaccustomed to using mail ballots will have to follow precise instructions for their votes to count. Security won’t be an issue as parish registrars will be comparing signatures with existing registration rolls as well as using unique identifiers on each ballot packet to ensure one vote only.

Of bigger concern is the sheer volume of mail ballots.

“Elections officials aren’t trying to disenfranchise anyone, but they’re slammed with work right now,” said David Becker, head of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, based in Washington, D.C.

This year’s turnout is expected to top the previous record of 65% voter participation in 1908, in which William Howard Taft was elected president. But that was before women and many African Americans were allowed to vote.

The best advice to ensure that your mail ballot counts is to vote as early as possible, Becker said.

“It’s the late-arriving ballots are the hardest to process and get out.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.