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When do problems with mail-in ballots become a problem for the media?

When do problems with mail-in ballots become a problem for the media?
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You almost cannot listen to the mainstream media discuss mail-in ballots without a reporter or news anchor prefacing his or her story by dismissing concerns about the reliability of mail-in ballots.

But they often fail to distinguish between absentee voting, which is generally safe and secure, and the newer and less-reliable practice of blanketing a region with mail-in ballots that voters may or may not expect, want or need — or know how to use.

Ironically, the same mainstream media frequently carry stories on mail-in ballot snafus.

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So how many stories do the media have to run about problems with mail-in ballots before the media themselves see mail-in ballots as a problem?

For example, an August National Public Radio report begins, “An extraordinarily high number of ballots – more than 550,000 – have been rejected in this year’s presidential primaries, according to a new analysis by NPR.” The reporter adds, “That’s far more than the 318,728 ballots rejected in the 2016 general election.”

Those 550,000 rejected ballots came in during this year’s primaries, when far fewer people voted than voted in the 2016 general election. That distinction is important.

The 318,728 rejected mail-in ballots in the 2016 general election amounted to less than a quarter of a percent of the 137 million votes cast.

By contrast, there were some 58 million Republican and Democratic primary votes this year. If more than 550,000 mail-in ballots were rejected, that’s nearly 1 percent of the total primary votes.

Tens of millions of voters will vote by mail for the very first time in this election. And most states that are vastly expanding their mail-in ballot options have had little experience handling the expected increase. 

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Thus, a 1 percent rejection rate in November may be – and probably will be – on the low side.

The NPR story goes on to point out how close some of the 2016 votes were in key swing states. “For example, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE won Wisconsin in 2016 by almost 23,000 votes. More than 23,000 absentee ballots were rejected in the state’s presidential primary in April. More than 37,000 primary ballots were also rejected in June in Pennsylvania, a state Trump won by just over 44,000 votes.”

In other words, Trump won those states in 2016 by close to the same number of mail-in ballots that were rejected in the 2020 primary. 

In the 2016 election, there were eight states where the vote spread between Trump and Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Trump fights for battleground Arizona Biden leads Trump by 12 in new national poll MORE was about 3 percentage points or less. Thus, an even closer 2020 election in those eight states, combined with potentially many more mail-in ballots, could leave several states undecided on Nov. 3 — and perhaps much later.

Several articles have explained that the decision over who wins the White House may ultimately be handed to the newly-elected members of the House of Representatives. 

But that ignores the possibility that we may not know who won many of those House seats either, because the rejected ballots would include votes for people running for the House and perhaps the Senate and many other state and local races.

Such problems may hurt Democratic candidates more, since Democrats have been pushing for a widespread expansion of mail-in voting and appear more likely to vote that way.

A September NBCLX/YouGov poll found that 65 percent of Democrats said they would vote by mail in this election, verses 49 percent of independents and 35 percent of Republicans — nearly twice the number of Democrats as Republicans. 

Of course, five states (Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii and Washington) have long had mail-in ballots only, and they seem to handle the process well — but they have had years of experience.

Another seven mostly Democratic-led states and Washington, D.C. are mailing ballots to all eligible voters for the first time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And many others are expanding mail-in vote options. According to the Washington Post, 84 percent of Americans will be able to vote by mail in this election.

It’s a near certainty that many of those opting for mail-in voting will make mistakes, as timelines, rules and requirements differ from state to state and in many cases have changed repeatedly and recently.

Given the potential for mismanagement, misinformation and unintended error – and we’re not even discussing the possibility of fraud – it’s astonishing that the media keep trying to reassure voters that mail-in ballots are a safe and secure way to ensure their vote is counted.

As for me, I’ll be voting early — and in person. 

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.