October 23, 2020

Vote-by-mail meltdowns in 2020?

If your state is voting by mail, then you can’t process all the ballot envelopes on November 3rd — it’s just too labor-intensive.

The details vary by state, as every state has different laws, but (basically) for each mail-in ballot received by the county election clerk, they must:

  • Sort the envelopes by “ballot style” (municipality or district) [CA and some other states don’t need to sort]
  • Look up the voter’s information (written on the envelope) in the voter-registration database (to find the signature for comparison, and to record in the database that the voter has voted, so therefore can’t vote twice)
  • Compare the signature and accept or reject the envelope
  • Remove identifying information from the envelope (to ensure the votes cannot be connected to the voter when the envelope is opened); in NJ it’s on a tear-off perforated tab
  • Open the envelope; check that the ballot type is right for the municipality or district
  • If the ballot is deemed unscannable, remake (copy by hand) the ballot
  • Flatten the ballot and put it in the batch for high-speed scanning+counting
  • Run the batch through the optical scanner

States that (usually) vote in-person, with just a few absentee ballots per county, can do all this processing on election day.

States that vote mostly by mail need to do all the labor-intensive parts (that is, all but running through the scanner) well in advance of election day — it is many days of work. Running through the scanner can perhaps be saved for election day (or the days immediately before), because the scanners can process 75 or 300 ballots per minute.

So therefore, vote-by-mail (or mostly-vote-by-mail) states such as OR, UT, CO, HI, WA have developed (over the years) procedures to process vote-by-mail envelopes in a timely way, as the ballots arrive in the weeks before the election. Some states that are mailing ballots to all voters just for the COVID-19 pandemic this year include NJ, CA, NV — and these states have adjusted their laws to allow processing the envelopes in the weeks before November 3rd. That makes sense.

Some states are sticking with in-person voting, but they allow processing of absentee ballots in a timely way (before November 2nd). That should be OK. Indeed, it is OK, as well as AK, AR, AZ, FL, GA, ID, IN, KS, ME, MN, MO, NC, NH, TN, TX, VT.

Some states are encouraging vote-by-mail — that is, they are mailing absentee-ballot request forms to every voter, while also planning for in-person voting. The states that are doing this (with timely processing of absentee ballot envelopes before November 2nd) are CT, DE, IA, IL, MD, MA, NE, OH, RI.

Signature cure: There’s another advantage to processing ballot-envelopes early. In many (but not all) of these states, if a voter’s signature does not match (or is missing), there’s time to contact the voter and let the voter fix the problem so the vote can count. If you process the signatures only on November 2nd or 3rd, that’s not possible.

Potential election meltdown states

Several states are sticking with in-person voting this year, and (as usual) planning to process all their absentee ballots on November 3rd or November 2nd. That will be OK, unless they experience a much greater rate of absentee ballots than usual. If a state is accustomed to 5% of the voters requesting (and returning) absentee ballots, and they get 40%, then it may take them several days after November 3rd to finish counting the votes. These states include AL, KY, LA, MS, NY, ND, PA, SC, SD, WV, WY.

Experts are particularly concerned about PA based on experience in the primary; and because of the late adoption of procedural changes, delayed by lawsuits that have only just been resolved.

Voters in these states should strongly consider taking this advice: vote in person.

Probable election meltdown states

What would be really dysfunctional would be to encourage vote-by-mail, but then to wait until November 3 (or November 2) to start processing those envelopes. That’s a recipe for election meltdown. The states that are heading for this disaster are MI, VT, WI. Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin are mailing absentee-ballot-request forms to every voter; but waiting until the last minute to process them after they’re returned. Vermont is even worse: the state is mailing a ballot to every voter, but won’t start processing the returned envelopes until November 2nd.

The Michigan State Senate recently approved a bill to start processing on November 2nd instead of November 3rd. If passed into law, that’s better than nothing — it will certainly help — but it may turn out to be inadequate.

Voters in these states should strongly consider taking this advice: vote in person.

Late ballot arrival states

Some states will count ballots postmarked by November 3rd, as long as they arrive by November 5th, or November 10th, etc. (depending on the state). (And the post office doesn’t “postmark” prepaid “business reply mail”, but can provide other evidence of when it was mailed, so states should be careful about how they use the word “postmark.”)


In these states, final election results cannot be known until several days after the election. If the late-arriving ballots are more for one candidate than another, this will cause an apparent shift in election results. That’s a meltdown of a different kind.

No-late-ballot-arrival states

Several states do not accept ballots that arrive after election day, even if postmarked before the deadline. If the postal service is unusually slow this year, then these states may disenfranchise many voters: AL, AZ, AK, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, ID, IN, KY, LA, ME, MA, MI, MN, MO, MT, NE, NH, NM, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, VT, WI, WY.

I’m not saying which is the right or wrong answer: accept ballots past November 3rd (if postmarked by the state-set deadline) and suffer from delays in reporting results; or stop accept ballots November 3rd and disenfranchise voters. Pick your poison. A compromise in the middle is to accept absentee ballots dropped off in drop boxes, vote centers, and polling places, as several (but not all) states do.

Polling-place meltdown states

So far, I’ve just been talking about the processing of absentee ballots. But some states and cities, in the past, have experienced hours-long lines at polling places, because of (1) underprovisioning of touch-screen voting machines, or (2) voting machines (or e-pollbooks) failing to turn on in the morning, or both at once.

Famous examples include Cleveland in 2004, and Atlanta in 2020 (primary election). Not coincidentally, both of these cities used touch-screen voting machines–because those are expensive (and slow to vote on), this can lead to underprovisioning of machines compared to how many voters there are.

In contrast, states that use hand-marked paper ballots can (usually) provide enough pens and enough cardboard privacy screens for many voters. The challenge, this year, will be to do this while also social distancing.

Let’s hope that the in-person voting states, this year, can avoid meltdowns (long lines, or COVID transmission) at their polling places.

The data from this article came, in part, from the National Conference of State Legislatures (and this NCSL page too).

[edited 9/22/20: MN is a late-ballot-arrival state]


  1. John David Stone says:

    You’re giving conflicting information about whether Iowa will begin processing absentee ballot envelopes before November 2. The paragraph beginning “Some states are encouraging vote-by-mail” says yes. The later paragraph beginning “What would be really dysfunctional” says no.

    An FAQ at the Iowa Secretary of State’s office (https://sos.iowa.gov/elections/voterinformation/absfaq.html) says that absentee ballots will not be counted until Election Day, but does not say whether the envelopes will be preprocessed earlier. Ballotpedia (https://ballotpedia.org/When_states_can_begin_processing_and_counting_absentee/mail-in_ballots,_2020) says that no such processing can begin until November 2. NCSL agrees with Ballotpedia, citing Iowa Code ยง53.23 (https://www.legis.iowa.gov/DOCS/IACODE/2001/53/23.html).

  2. Cris Ericson says:

    I think there could be some hanky panky because Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos is having ballots which were printed up in Vermont sent to a company in Massachusetts which will then mail the ballots to each voter in Vermont. That reeks of potential fraud. I’m on the ballot for Auditor of Accounts, the only candidate running against ten year incumbent Doug Hoffer. Cris Ericson http://politics2020.org

  3. Max Hailperin says:

    This year MN belongs in the list of late ballot arrival states as a result of the consent decree in LaRose v. Simon.