Today's great mystery: Why did California trash over 100,000 mail-in ballots in March?

Seems like a good question, especially since Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation making California a vote-by-mail state. In the primary that took place weeks before that move, the state ended up throwing more than one hundred thousand mailed ballots into the trash. Why?

Ostensibly, it’s because that many voters couldn’t follow instructions:

More than 100,000 mail-in ballots were rejected by California election officials during the March presidential primary, according to data obtained by The Associated Press that highlights a glaring gap in the state’s effort to ensure every vote is counted.

With the coronavirus pandemic raging, California is part of a growing number of states increasing mail-in balloting to avoid crowds at polling places. President Donald Trump is among those questioning the integrity of vote-by-mail elections while supporters say they are just as reliable as polling places and offer greater flexibility for voters.

But while polling places include workers who can assist people who have questions about filling out ballots, a voter doesn’t have support at home and so problems can arise.

True enough, and that’s why mail-in balloting is such a bad idea as a primary method for voting. It’s not just the ballot either; sometimes it is the security methods in place to keep them secure. Minnesota uses a double-envelope system with signatures required, and a failure to observe any single step can invalidate the ballot — and the voter never finds out. Over 100,000 citizens in California’s primary, which isn’t exactly a high-turnout event, had their votes ignored. That undermines trust in the entire process.

And that assumes we trust the process up front. Is it truly reasonable to think that 100,000 people in a statewide primary couldn’t successfully complete a ballot? Or did overzealous election officials trash ballots too quickly, or for other reasons than overzealousness?

Had those people voted in person, they would have been able to use a simpler procedure and received assistance in casting those ballots. If the state used optical-scan balloting, the voter would have known immediately if the ballot could not be counted, and could have requested a do-over. In-person paper ballots with capability for immediate counting and preservation remains the most secure and efficient method of voting. If we can gather in Wal-Marts, we can open voting precincts to elect our new leadership.

The problem with mail-in voting isn’t just with submissions. The problems continue with counting as well, which is already taking weeks to complete in New York’s primary from last month. ABC News warns that we might face a constitutional crisis in November if states continue to shift to mail-in ballots:

“When an absentee ballot comes back to the board of elections, the board has to sort the ballots into assembly districts,” said Steiner, the New York City elections lawyer. “They have to verify that it was mailed by a certain time. Then they check the outer envelope, make sure it’s intact. They open the envelope, clip the outer envelope to the inner envelope. Then they check the signature and date. And then they have to check all of this against the voter rolls to make sure the person didn’t vote in person.”

That’s difficult enough under the best of circumstances. But this year, the people and machines charged with processing the crush of paperwork are already struggling — some New York voters, in one case, said they didn’t receive return envelopes. …

New York’s polls closed nearly three weeks ago. But many candidates still don’t know whether they’ve won — because New York City is still counting ballots that arrived in the mail.

These votes would be an afterthought in most years. In fact, in New York, which is typically far more reliant on in-person voting, state law requires a weeklong delay before counting absentee ballots. But this year, amid widespread worries of COVID-19 spreading at polling places, the number of mail-in ballots is surging far faster than states’ ability to count them.

Elections experts are increasingly convinced that this surge, and the nation’s patchwork method of handling it, could lead to a constitutional crisis in November.

They haven’t finished with a primary yet after two weeks of counting, which started on July 1 despite the election being held the previous week. How much longer will it take? And how much longer will it take in the general election in November, not just in New York but all 50 states? How many ballots will get discarded in that election, and what impact will that have not just on the presidential election but choices all the way down the ballot?

As I wrote the day after the New York primary, we are headed toward a constitutional crisis.  There is a distinct possibility that we will not have firm election results before the next session of Congress is due to start, and perhaps not even when the presidential term ends two-plus weeks after that, thanks to mail-in voting. The rush to embrace this inefficient and time-consuming process mirrors the rush to adopt video-screen voting after the 2000 election debacle in Florida. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and is all but assured to make our next election less trustworthy and to be the genesis of a thousand conspiracy theories.

Paper ballots. In person. Optical-scan systems for quick and accurate counts. That is the most efficient and trustworthy voting method yet devised, and we should not let the virus stampede us into a catastrophic choice now. Again, if we can gather outside for protests and shop at Wal-Mart, we can figure out in-person voting too.