To ensure your vote counts, return your ballot and avoid preventable mistakes

By Matthew Gagnon

For years, both political parties loved absentee ballots. To a campaign operative, absentees were a gift. They allow for the creation of a sophisticated voter identification and turnout operation, where potential voters for your candidate are turned into guaranteed voters that can be “put in the bank,” as the saying goes.

Often, absentee ballot requests and returns were an early indicator of how a race was likely to play out. In years where you saw higher numbers of requests from Democrats, left-leaning candidates were likely to win. In years where the opposite occurred, right-leaning candidates were probably going to come out on top.

Today, though, absentee balloting — in part because it has been swept into the “mail in-balloting” conversation — is intensely political. Across the country, in state after state, we are seeing massive numbers of absentee ballot requests from Democrats, and relatively small numbers (by comparison) from Republicans.

In Maine, the latest numbers show that 212,240 Democrats have requested absentee ballots — a full 51 percent of all requests — while only 85,702 Republicans have done so. Republican numbers are so low (again, by comparison) that even unenrolled voters have requested more (103,717) ballots than they have.

Does that mean the Democrats are going to walk away with the election in Maine, and in the swing states? Not at all. 

Republicans are hell bent on showing up on Election Day in person, and are increasingly skeptical of voting by not only mail, but absentee. Whether it is fear that their ballot could be intercepted, lost or altered, or simply a statement about personal opposition to COVID-19 shutdowns, they will be walking into the voting booth on Nov. 3.

But no one seems to be really talking about the grave implications of this shift in voter behavior this year. The media, instead, reports on the president’s accusations of mail-in voting fraud, attempting to fact check his statements or analyzing the political impact from visible turnout advantages for Democrats.

Nobody is talking about the impending cancellations of ballots.

A ballot can be rejected for a lot of reasons, but the most common are related to envelope signature problems, and return date deadlines not being met. Nationwide in the 2016 election, more than 750,000 mail-in ballots, or about 1.2 percent of all ballots returned, were rejected.

But that percentage can vary widely, particularly in Maine. According to the Maine Secretary of State’s office, in our July primary, 185,365 voters returned an absentee ballot. In that election, 22,310 ballots were canceled, mostly because they were not returned. This amounts to an eye popping 12 percent of absentee ballots that were requested.

Previous elections in Maine have seen wild swings in cancellation rates. In 2018’s general election, 10,544 ballots were rejected, representing 5.6 percent of absentee ballots. Cancellations were only 0.94 percent (300 ballots) in that year’s primary election, 3.52 percent (9,088 ballots) in the 2016 general election, and a whopping 10.8 percent (1,143) of absentee ballots in the 2016 primary.

In the current election cycle, 2,069 ballots have already been rejected in Maine, though the rejection rate is currently only 0.74 percent. Still, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap estimates as many as 600,000 Mainers, or a little more than 57 percent of registered voters, could vote by absentee ballot this November. If the cancellation rate remains the same, that would mean that Maine would cancel 4,430 ballots (excluding unreturned ballots). 

If, however, that number creeps up — which it definitely will, particularly when collection deadlines come into play — that number can (and will) rise significantly. If ballots are canceled in a rate similar to 2016, for instance, Maine would negate 21,120 absentee ballots. If the rate ends up as high as it was in the primary, that could be as high as 72,240 canceled ballots, though much of this would represent unreturned ballots. 

Whatever the number ends up being, it is going to represent a shockingly high number of voters who wanted to vote but failed to return their ballot in a timely manner or made a preventable mistake that ultimately resulted in their vote not being counted. And given that the overwhelming number of absentees are coming from Democrats, those ballot rejections could have massive impact on the result.

The nightmare scenario, though, is a big swing state — like say Pennsylvania — deciding the fate of the presidency, with a very narrow vote margin determining the election outcome while thousands of absentee ballots are rejected for preventable mistakes. 

Can you imagine the impending litigation that would result? If you thought 2020 wasn’t bad enough, it might just get a whole lot worse.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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