“This Needs to Be a National Conversation”

Vote by Mail archives montanafreepress.org

With all the concerns about the various attempts to disenfranchise voters, another voting issue hasn’t been talked about much.

This Just In:

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has filed a lawsuit against officials of the New York State Board of Elections.

That’s right. One of the bluest of blue states is being sued for “multiple New York election practices that lead to a high rejection rate of absentee ballots for reasons unrelated to a voter’s eligibility,” reports Democracy Docket.

And the lawsuit contends that these practices “unconstitutionally burden and even disenfranchise voters in violation of the First and 14th Amendments and Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The opening paragraph of the 44-page Complaint appears below. The relief sought by the plaintiff appears on page 7. The eye-opening STATEMENT OF FACTS AND LAW begins on page 11.

1. In a report issued just a few months ago, the New York State Senate Elections Committee recognized that “New York’s system of election administration has routinely fallen short in ways that have shaken public confidence, limited participation, and even disenfranchised voters.” 2021 S. Elections Comm. Rep. at 1. 1 “Rather than one-off incidents of malfeasance or incompetence, recent incidents in New York point to structural flaws[.]” Id. These structural flaws tend to have a disproportionate impact on communities most at risk of being disenfranchised, such as people of color, low-income voters, voters with physical disabilities, or voters whose primary language is not English.” Id. Such voters are among DCCC’s core constituencies, and DCCC brings this action to address these severe, perpetual threats to its ability to elect its candidates and enfranchise its voters.” (emphases mine)

I’d long heard about New York State’s poor record of voting administration. Cynical Republican legislators, when challenged about their newly passed suppressive voting laws, have said, “We’re no worse than New York.”

But I didn’t know the specifics. And not surprisingly, due to timing, this litigation wasn’t mentioned during Thursday’s informative Twitter space virtual meeting held by Democracy Docket and its founder, the extraordinary voting rights attorney Marc Elias.

But the consciousness-raising that Elias did about the issue of structural voter disenfranchisement prompted me to write this post.

I thought I was done last night with a shorter post–until I saw the announcement of this lawsuit, filed February 4th. Not surprisingly, Elias and his firm are attorneys for the plaintiffs.

Elias has become a voting rights rock star in some circles. On Twitter spaces, where large virtual meetings are held, his Democracy Docket gathering had more than 500 participants when I first listened three weeks ago. Last week, there were more than 850. This week, the number was 1280 and growing.

With good reason. Elias is dedicated to using the courts to ensure that voting rights are available to all. He has an excellent success rate, as the former guy knows well.

Obviously, that’s an exhausting effort, with so many Republican state legislators doing their best to limit voting in diverse ways. Elias never sounds tired, though: this is a man who loves his work. And we sure need that work right now.

We’re accustomed to hearing about deliberate attempts to suppress votes. This week’s session included some troubling information about a different trend.

Elias calls it “the epidemic of uncounted ballots in America.”

Unfortunately, it’s happening in Blue states as well as Red ones. New York isn’t the only one.

Vote by mail (VBM), also called “all mail-in voting” and voting by absentee ballot, has become increasingly popular—despite efforts to curtail its use by Republicans, who favored it until it led to greater voter turnout in the pandemic-plagued 2020 election.

Elias urged us to read a New York Times article about Washington State, where all mail-in balloting has been in place since 2011. States with all mail-in voting have had some of the highest participation rates, attracting voters who might otherwise be unable to vote due to “the challenges of work, child care, or transportation,” The Times noted. Washington state was thought to be a voting success story.

That wasn’t quite accurate. Auditors found that in the 2020 election, four times as many votes by Black voters were rejected compared with white voters. Higher rejection rates were also found among Hispanic, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islanders’ ballots.

The reason was invariably the same: signature verification problems. There didn’t appear to be any deliberate effort to deny voters their rights; nor were any voters found to be attempting to cast fraudulent ballots. Signatures were either missing or didn’t match the ones on file, possibly due to “voter inexperience, language problems, or other factors.”

There were variations among counties, which the auditors observed could mean that some election officials were more strict in their reviews of matching signatures than others.

The Washington State auditor termed the findings “unacceptable” and tasked election officials to fix the problem.

And in Colorado in 2020, 65% of young people’s ballots were rejected in an election the Democratic Secretary of State cited for its “second-in-the-nation turnout rate…calling it a special day that ‘commemorates the will of the people and the strength of our democracy,'” reported The Colorado Sun.

During the Democracy Docket Q&A with Twitter participants, one woman remarked about the burden this signature matching imposes on her disabled son. Elias concurred that disabled voters are indeed another large segment of voters disenfranchised by signature matching.

So the list is long: Voters who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islanders, young, disabled. That’s a substantial slice of Americana—all people who wanted to vote, made the effort to vote, but were told their votes didn’t count.

There are ways to address this problem. Colorado and Washington State both permit voters to “cure” their ballots via texting from their mobile phones. According to the Sun, “The text-to-cure program allowed voters to correct signature issues and provide photos of their IDs if their ballot was flagged by officials.”

The Washington state auditor’s office issued a report encouraging voter education that explains the signature matching program and its importance, as well as collecting a few sample signatures from each voter and following up with voters who failed to appeal when their signatures were rejected.

Others have recommended eliminating the problem by substituting PIN numbers for signatures.

The New York State lawsuit goes well beyond signature verification and cites multiple issues leading to disenfranchisement: election official error (such as mailing absentee ballot applications too late–34,000 ballots mailed to voters one day before the 2020 election!); “arbitrary postmarking practices” in various parts of the state; mailed ballots that the US Postal Service has failed to postmark; and many other roadblocks, often outside the voter’s control.

According to the complaint, roughly 50,000 absentee ballots in 2020 were rejected for “immaterial technical defects” that voters could cure, or correct, if the state changed its procedures.

Elias emphasized in our Thursday meeting that allowing people to vote—and then rejecting their ballots—“gives them the illusion of democracy.

“This needs to stop,” he said. “This system is just broken. If politicians don’t fix this, they should be sued.”

And once again, he’s done just that.

Were you aware of this seemingly nonpolitical issue with voting that’s having a significant impact? Did you realize its dimensions? Have you ever cast a vote that was rejected?


20 thoughts on ““This Needs to Be a National Conversation”

  1. Annie –

    Here in WA State it is really easy (we even have postage paid ballots, thanks to the Puget Sound for funding), so the impediments to voting are nil. One of the fun things is you can track your ballot (securely) online and see if it encounters any problems.

    What is not as obvious when you submit it is that if you do NOT give an email or phone number on the envelope where you sign, then state has no way to reach you if there is a problem. Thus the perfect storm: if you yourself don’t track your ballot AND if you did not include a way for the board of elections to reach you to cure your ballot, well…

    There’s an easy technological fix: the state could include your contact info on your ballot. They already have your address, so it’s not much of a reach. You could correct/update any contact errors, too. It makes me nuts that they don’t write one line of code to include it.



    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Tengrain. Your firsthand report is good to know. Your state election officers seem eager to do better; perhaps if you advise them how easy it would be add a line of code…
      It does seem, though, that education of both voters and election officials who check signatures is needed to reduce signature matching disqualifications.

      Regards to you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An article by Candy Woodall in today’s “Elmira Star-Gazette” reports that “Nearly half of all election directors and some of their top staffers have left the job in Pennsylvania, citing mounting political pressure, threats and stress that have continued since November 2020.” It can’t be good that these jobs may be hard to fill with competent, responsible people.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been worrying about that since I first heard about these intimidation campaigns, whungerford. There are growing numbers of essential jobs in America—election workers, teachers, librarians, healthcare workers, etc—that now require uncommon bravery to fulfill. We have to find our way back from this dark place.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another dimension, indeed. Thanks for turning on a spotlight. I’m going to check our state’s status — and make some noise, If required!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Trish. Yes, there seem to be significant variations among voters’ experiences depending on where they live and the other factors mentioned.

      Whether the problems are traceable to incompetence, lack of experience—or, heaven forfend, corruption—or a combination thereof, they’ve been going on for years. Perhaps your new governor will view the DCCC lawsuit as a serious and embarrassing wake-up call and focus on making improvements pronto.


  4. Interesting article Annie. I’ve never had my vote rejected and so far, I’ve never heard of this happening to anyone that I know. It seems odd that the state would have enough information about you to inform you of this situation yet still reject your vote. Giving you the opportunity to appeal/override/petition their ruling seems like the least they could do.

    I never thought about difficulties validating young people’s signatures until seeing the statistic you cited in Colorado. All three of my kids, while high academic achievers, have difficulty producing a consistent signature. Their generation didn’t spend hours in school practicing handwriting. When forced to write, they print. This is also true for their cousins. They struggle to write in cursive and they sometimes won’t even bother to read a letter or postcard that is written in cursive because it’s too difficult to decipher.

    I’m glad there are people like Elias who are analyzing our election system so closely. What an incredibly complex task, given that each state (and districts within that state) has its own method for collecting and counting votes. Comparing a current signature with some older version on file seems like an artifact that could be replaced with far more efficient and error-free techniques.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your observations about young people’s signature are extremely valuable, Carol. How can we expect them to have legible signatures when they’re no longer being taught cursive writing? I plan to convey them to Marc Elias.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Really interesting, and with what felt like a really tight race last time, this feels like a huge deal from over this side of the pond. If you’d have asked me to pick the state that was being criticised for these issues, I certainly wouldn’t have picked NYS.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t have either, Matthew, and it’s not the worry that the state would vote for Republicans in national elections for the Senate or President. I listen to Marc Elias every week now; he’s made it clear that anywhere states are depriving voters of their rights, whether intentionally or not, he and/or his colleagues will sue.


      1. I really hope that mechanism is effective Annie. It’s a trend that’s really started to creep in over here as well, despite data showing voting fraud is negligible. Really interesting that the Democracy Index has both the UK and US listed as ‘flawed democracies’.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I know, Matthew. We’re fighting against anti democratic trends worldwide. Biden said when he ran, and has repeated a number of times, that the autocrats are watching in the hopes of seeing us fail. Actually, they’re doing more than watching…


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