Election officials respond to mail ballot misconceptions

Posted at 6:44 PM, Aug 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-18 20:44:21-04

The nearly 47,000 registered voters in Cascade County will receive their ballots by mail ahead of the upcoming general election on November 3rd. The Cascade County Commission voted unanimously in a special meeting on Tuesday morning to approve the proposal for an all-mail ballot election proposed by county election administrator Rina Moore.

Voters will still have the option to vote in person at a polling place using their mailed ballot if they so choose.

County election administrator Rina Moore presented the proposal to the commissioners, and acknowledged that there has been backlash against the plan, primarily drawn from disinformation spread from social media. “We have determined that it is most economically and administratively feasible way of conducting the election,” Moore said during the meeting. “Elections takes months and months of planning. And I have lost hours of sleep thinking about how we can run this election by poll. And I do not believe that it is feasible logistically.”

Moore cited concerns with long lines due to limitations on building capacity. “We have estimated that our voters will have to stand in line outside our facility for a period of up to two to four hours, depending on the time of day,” she said. “We will also need line monitors to make sure that social distancing is being adhered to during a normal election.”

The commission and the elections office have received numerous emails and phone calls over the past few weeks, both for and against a mail ballot election. Moore addressed some of the common complaints against voting by mail, and the commissioners voiced their support for her office.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said, “For those of you who are concerned about voter fraud - are we immune? No. Am I comfortable with the team that’s in place that it will not happen in Cascade County? The answer is yes.”

Commissioner Jane Weber agreed. “I’ve seen (the elections office) operate, and I know that they have the integrity to make this work,” Weber said. “We are all in a changed situation here due to COVID-19 and it’s not the fault of the elections office. We are trying to follow the directives of the CDC and our public health officers, and I commend Rina for thinking ahead to what her needs might be.”

Ballots will be mailed to voters in October, and the elections office will work to ensure accuracy of the count and registration all the way up until 8 p.m. on November 3rd.

“So like all mail ballot elections, anyone that does not receive their ballot through the mail, anyone that makes an error on their ballot, anyone that is inactive can come in to the office and we can reissue a ballot,” Moore said.

Moore shared the following statements and misconceptions that have been made by some peole and the response to each from the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders and Election Administrators:

MISCONCEPTION: There’s no difference between standing in line at a polling place than standing in line at the store.
RESPONSE: First of all, we'd like to make it clear that lines are not hours long in a store and the longer a person carrying the virus is in place, the more exposure they present to others and the greater the likelihood of continuing the transmission of a virus. Not to mention the clerks in the stores are generally not in their 70’s and 80’s as are the election judges in Cascade County.

If voting is being compared to shopping, an appropriate comparison would be Black Friday. Voters are assigned to polling places and must vote there, while customers can choose any store that they prefer based on proximity and crowding. The CDC provides guidance for many sectors for election officials. One of their guiding principles is exploring any other feasible options for reducing the number of voters who congregate indoors in polling locations. At the same time, another suggestion the CDC has made is to offer alternative voting methods that minimize direct contact and reduce crowd size at polling locations and consider offering alternatives to in-person voting where possible in your jurisdiction. If allowed in the jurisdiction in Montana, the alternative is time-tested vote by mail with an in person voting option.

MISCONCEPTION: Mail ballots and absentee ballots are not the same thing.
RESPONSE: They are very much the same thing.

The only difference is the chapter of Title 13 of Montana Code Annotated that the election is being conducted under. Title 13, Chapter 13 - Part 2 is specific to how electors who are absent from the polling place may vote. Chapter 19 of this title is specific to the conduct of a mail ballot (ie: all-mail elections. Each of these chapters cross-references to the other, thus showing the procedures for one are the same as the other, both in issuing and accepting ballots.

In a polling place election, absentee ballots are mailed to active and provisionally registered voters who request an absentee ballot.

In a mail ballot, election ballots are mailed to active and provisionally, registered voters in Cascade County. We have three provisionally registered voters, and that simply means they have sent registration cards in and they have not provided us with either at their signature or an ID.

So they're registered provisionally when the ballot goes to them. If it comes back and they haven't rectified this, we are not able to count that ballot.

MISCONCEPTION: Dead people get mail ballots.
RESPONSE: This is another issue that we've heard discussed. Voter rolls are constantly maintained in the State of Montana. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services provides quarterly updates to county election officials. The county’s death list and vital statistics, which are part of the Clerk and Recorders office is pulled once a month and used to crosscheck voters prior to ballots being issued.

If a ballot is sent to a deceased voter, more times than not, it is sent back to us with notations and we immediately verify and cancel that voter. All signatures on affirmation envelopes are checked against the exhibits and the voters record. If the signature is forged, it will be rejected as a signature mismatched and not counted.

MISCONCEPTION: People move and somebody else votes their ballot.
RESPONSE: Voter rolls are checked bi-annually against the National Change of Address registry and sent confirmation mailings to ensure that the ballots are sent to the correct address. All signatures on affirmation envelopes are checked against what is in our voter records.

MISCONCEPTION: Pets get ballots in all mail elections.
RESPONSE: Pets do not have social security numbers or driver's licenses that would be used to verify the identity of a perspective voter. Any voter who does not provide this information, or if the information provided cannot be verified against the Social Security Administration's database is registered provisionally. A ballot would be sent, but not accepted or counted unless, and until the voter resolves the issue with their ID verification information.

MISCONCEPTION: In all mail election, every person gets a ballot regardless if they are registered or not.
RESPONSE: In a mail ballot election, the elections office uses the voter rolls for all purposes and has no other database from which to draw recipients of election material. In all-mail elections, only active registered voters are sent a ballot.

Inactive voters are not sent ballots in all mail elections. Voters become inactive due to not responding to confirmation mailings and as a result of either not voting in a federal election or a mail ballot being returned to this office as undeliverable.

Mail ballot elections actually aid in maintaining accurate voter rolls because of the laws related to undeliverable ballots.

MISCONCEPTION: The postal service can not handle this much mail.
RESPONSE: The USPS is very much equipped to handle the task as they did with primary elections in June and have done in all other elections. The volume of election mail will be less than the volume of mail sent between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

We have a very close, personal relationship with our postmaster. In all elections, we partner with each other to ensure that ballots are sent correctly and received in a timely manner. There is detailed coordination to ensure that election mail is properly flagged and processed.

MISCONCEPTION: Mail ballot elections are not how voters typically vote.
RESPONSE: Generally the only elections that are conducted by poll/absentee are federal and statewide elections. The majority of elections conducted in Montana are conducted by mail ballot and do not have polling places available. These include county-wide municipal school and special district elections.

In all elections voters may vote in-person at the County election office for 30 days prior to the election and cast their ballot. Even when polls are open, most people vote by mail.

MISCONCEPTION: Mail ballot elections are susceptible to fraud.
RESPONSE: Mail and absentee ballots have fraud prevention features that polling place ballots do not. Specifically when a ballot is returned in the mail or in a return envelope at a place of deposit, the signature contained on the envelope is compared to the signatures on file for that voter before the ballot can be accepted and counted.

This level of scrutiny is an aspect of security that polling place elections do not have. While a voter at a polling place will sign the register while receiving their ballot, there is no comparison of this signature to any other exhibit in the voter's signature file.

MISCONCEPTION: This is against the Constitution.
RESPONSE: Nothing in the US constitution or the constitution of the State of Montana prevents elections from occurring by mail. Article 4 of Montana's Constitution is specific to allowing absentee voting and requires the legislature to provide laws for the administration of elections, such as mail ballot elections.

MISCONCEPTION: Ballot boxes can be stolen in a mail ballot election.
RESPONSE: We’ve heard this over and over. Ballot boxes are not left unattended and will be staffed by at least two election officials at all times.

In fact, the ballot box in the elections office has four different cameras that are on it constantly. And the ballot box in our hall has seven different cameras that monitor it at all times.

MISCONCEPTION: Mail is stolen and ballots are harvested in voting.
RESPONSE: We’ve heard this comment a lot. Signature verification is the cornerstone of accepting mail and absentee ballots. All signatures on affirmation envelopes are checked against the exhibits in the voters record. If the signature is forged, it will likely be rejected as a signature mismatched and would not be counted.

MISCONCEPTION: Election officials can change votes and fill in ovals on un-voted contests of ballots returned by mail.
RESPONSE: The process of opening secrecy envelopes is monitored and observable by the public. Our election judges are the ones that do that in a public forum. Any writing implement used in this process uses red ink, which cannot be detected by tabulators. There is no ballot where ovals are filled in at all, at any time.

MISCONCEPTION: Election officials do not have adequate training required to conduct a mail ballot election.
RESPONSE: This is a headline that we’re seeing but it’s not relevant to Montana's elections. While it may apply to some states, Montana has laws governing mail ballot elections and election officials with years of experience in conducting these types of elections.

Polling place elections, and the laws that govern them require a great deal more training and understanding by election officials. The chance of an election official making an error that could cause potential harm to a voter is greater in a polling place location than in a mail ballot election.

With the exception of elections for federal and statewide offices, all elections in Cascade County and across our state are conducted by mail ballot with an accessible in person voting option.

Montana has robust and time-tested laws that govern mail ballot elections and Cascade County has highly developed processes for conducting elections by mail ballot. There is no evidence that mail ballot elections are more susceptible to fraud and tampering.

Any evidence of voter or election fraud should be reported to the election office, the police, the county attorney's office, or the commissioner of political practices so it can be investigated. As with any crime, details help with the investigation. Election processes are open to public observation and in all elections, including all mail elections, voters may vote in person at the county election office for up to 30 days prior to the election

The Lewis & Clark County Commission voted unanimously last week to switch to a mail ballot election.