I sat perched on the edge of my seat, my phone pressed nervously to my ear. When I heard a voice greet me on the other end of the line, I took a deep breath and began to explain my situation: It was two days before Super Tuesday, and though I had mailed my request to vote absentee to my home state of Texas before the application deadline, I had still not received my ballot. The person from my local elections office told me to wait a bit while she checked. The silence was nerve-wracking. Then, she got back on the phone.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We never received your application.”
My heart sank. I thought I had done everything right- filling out my application to the exact specifications, mailing it with enough time to reach my home county’s elections administration office before the deadline - and I still wasn’t going to be able to vote in the Texas primary.
It wasn’t until weeks later that I found out what happened. Although I had mailed my application several days before the deadline, which should have been adequate time for it to reach Texas, something had gone wrong, and it had arrived too late. While I could have submitted my application sooner, there was no way of knowing how much sooner would have been soon enough.
Although I was eventually able to register and vote in Illinois, that didn’t change how upsetting the whole situation was. I had been desperately hoping to be able to vote in Texas, as that state had more delegates up for grabs in the presidential primary. There were also the down-ballot races - I had wanted to pick the representatives for the place I had lived all my life, not for the place I would be studying for a few years. This situation makes me worry about my vote in the general election, which is when it really matters. Assuming that the university has re-opened by then, I’ll need to try to vote absentee again if I want to vote in Texas. Illinois is solidly blue, and, although Texas leans Republican, it is considered to be much more competitive, meaning that my vote would matter a lot more there. But given my experience trying to vote absentee in the primary, I don’t know if that will be possible.
I am not the only one to have faced such problems. There has been much reporting about the failures of the absentee voting system in Wisconsin’s April 7 election. Many voters did not receive their absentee ballots in time to vote, forcing them to choose between risking infection by voting in-person or not being able to cast their ballot at all. While some of this might be attributable to the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this is not the first time such problems have occured. At our own university, for instance, the Daily Northwestern reported in 2018 that many students did not receive their mail-in ballots in time to vote in the midterm elections.
There are many problems with the absentee voting system. The regulations surrounding absentee voting, which govern everything from the deadline for applications to who is even allowed to vote by mail, vary from state to state. This leads to inconsistency and can create confusion for voters. Ballots and the applications for them can get lost in the mail, or they may arrive too late for people to vote in an election. While some states will count ballots that are postmarked by the date of the election, in others a ballot must arrive at the local election office by that date in order to be counted, meaning that there is a real risk that a ballot will be disqualified because it arrived too late. In 2018, 27% of the approximately 600,000 disqualified mail-in ballots sent by in-country voters were rejected for this reason. Finally, as in my case, if your application doesn’t arrive at the election office by the deadline, which varies between states, then you’ll be stuck waiting for a ballot that isn’t coming at all.
Voters living overseas don’t have to worry about their ballot not arriving on time. They can fill out a Federal Write-in Absentee ballot (FWAB), which is a blank ballot printed out from the internet and mailed just like a normal mail-in ballot for federal elections, as well as state and local elections in some states. Some states even let overseas voters vote using a FWAB even if they haven’t sent in a ballot request. However, this option does not exist for people who are in the country but are out of state or for some other reason can’t make it to a polling place.
Reliable absentee voting is vital, especially for those of us studying at out-of-state universities. There are a variety of reasons why college students may want to vote in their home state. Perhaps they’re from a swing state, so they feel their vote will make more of a difference there, or perhaps they want to vote in an important down-ballot election. Whatever the case may be, it is nearly impossible for students to take time away from their studies and travel to their home state to vote in-person, leaving mail-in voting as their only option.
Furthermore, interest in voting by mail has sky-rocketed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many view it as a safer method of casting a ballot. This makes it more important than ever to ensure absentee voting is reliable.
There are some potential changes that could be made to the mail-in voting system to make it more reliable. For instance, absentee voting regulations could be made uniform across the country, greatly reducing confusion, and in-country absentee voters could be allowed to use Federal Write-in Ballots like overseas voters. However, none of these solutions solve the fundamental problem that the absentee ballot system relies on the mail system, which is ultimately unreliable.
There is, however, one solution to this problem: online voting. Many argue that such a system would not be secure, but this is not necessarily the case. In a 2018 New York Times opinion piece, for instance, BlockChain Research Institute co-founder Alex Tippot lays out a system of online voting where blockchain encryption is used to ensure security.
Additionally, online voting is not without precedent. A few states already allow voting over the internet for voters living overseas, and many others allow such voters to vote using email or fax.
A nation-wide system of online voting would allow voters like me to instantly cast their ballots without risk of them being lost or delayed. It would also provide an easy and safe way to vote should another outbreak arise.
While there might be unforeseen problems with online voting, what is important is that we begin to try to develop a system to make it possible. For many voters across the country, their right to vote depends on it.
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