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Guardrails line the journey in the life of a mail-in ballot

With the integrity of vote-by-mail becoming a political issue and the coronavirus driving demand for it, there are steps to ensure validity.
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WASHINGTON — To hear President Donald Trump and his allies tell it, every step of vote-by-mail is an open door for rampant fraud to enter elections, from the moment ballots are printed to when they’re finally counted.

But election officials and candidates who have encountered the system up-close say that human and computerized guardrails all along the journey of a mail-in-ballot create a structure that, while cumbersome and expensive, cannot be breached in any significant way.

And with the integrity of vote-by-mail becoming a political issue and the coronavirus driving more states and voters towards using it, there are clear steps along the way where ballots are verified and vetted.

While not all states let you vote by mail without a reason. In 2016, about 1 in 4 votes were cast by mail, with more states moving in that direction.

Every state and local government does it differently. Election experts say that’s part of what makes it so secure. With different systems across the U.S. for printing, delivering and validating ballots, it would be extremely difficult for anyone to “hack” the presidential election in any widespread way.

Here are the major milestones in the journey of a mail-in-ballot:

Step 1: Ballots printed

The journey of a mail-in ballot starts when local election officials verify an individual voter’s eligibility and sends an order the printer, where it’s printed on special fraud-resistant paper, usually with a barcode that allows it to be tracked like a package.

Step 2: Ballots mailed

In some places, voters must proactively request a ballot while other areas send all voters applications for a one.

Salt Lake County, in heavily Republican Utah, started sending every active, registered voter an actual ballot. County Clerk Sherrie Swenson says turnout surged to nearly 80 percent in 2018, rates almost unheard of for a midterm election.

“We're making sure that we do address updates with the National Change of Address,” Swensen says. “We're constantly cleaning up our lists and making sure that they are pristine as they can be.”

Step 3: Ballots completed

After ballots arrive by mail, it’s up to candidates to make sure their supporters fill theirs out — and return them by the deadline. That requires a different type of get-out-the-vote effort than the traditional kind aimed at mobilizing supporters to physically go to a polling site on Election Day.

Democrat Suraj Patel learned that lesson this summer in his longshot primary bid against longtime Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. With Coronavirus walloping New York this spring, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered that every registered voter be sent an absentee ballot application.

The results are still being counted but if Patel wins, it will be a major upset, due in large part due to vote-by-mail, which he made central to his campaign strategy.

“We completely changed our organization and our strategy in our plan to be one of getting people to request ballots, and then following up and chasing them with returning those ballots,” Patel says in an interview. “We typically think of get out the vote period as being the last seven days of election. We made it the last eight weeks of the election.”

Step 4: Ballots returned

At home, voters seal their completed ballots, sign them, and drop them in the mail. That’s one reason Democrats are so concerned about Trump’s threats to cut funding to the U.S. Postal Service. There are calls for a standardized policy that ballots postmarked by Election Day must be counted, because of concerns that mail service can be slower in poorer or largely minorities of the U.S.

The signature is later verified against voter registration records by an election worker, a computer, or both.

Step 5: Ballots validated and counted

You need fewer poll workers — usually retirees who volunteer — to conduct an election by mail. But you need more professionals on hand and more high-tech gear to validate and count ballots, ensuring nobody can vote twice.

“We have machines that log in the ballots when they're returned,” says Swensen of Salt Lake County. “We have a barcode on the ballot envelope, and when a ballot is returned, it automatically is logged in as having been received immediately,” with that voter marked system-wide as having already turned in a ballot.

Charles Stewart, a voting technology expert who teaches at MIT, says large municipalities or localities conducting major vote-by-mail operations must buy equipment that automatically rips open the various envelopes and separates the ballot — machines that he says can cost a million dollars and take up massive warehouse space.

“It's like buying a fire truck,” Stewart says. “And you're buying dozens of these.”

And it can take time to count all the votes, particularly in places not accustomed to handling a large volume of mail-in ballots.

Almost two weeks after New York’s June 23 primary, the results are so close that no winner has been called, with Patel trailing Maloney by less than a thousand votes with incomplete results.

The reason for the hold-up is mail-in voting, with a large number of absentee ballots leading state officials to delay counting them until this week. That’s raising concerns about how prepared America is to vote largely by mail this November if coronavirus keeps voters away from the polls.

Patel says that while the long wait for election results is nerve-wracking, he has more confidence in the vote-by-mail process and that every vote will be counted than he did at the start of the race.

“Truth is, we're learning this as we go,” Patel says. “Just like everybody else.”