In Baltimore, my girlfriend waited in line for 75 minutes before she could vote. In New York, my editor, Adam Penenberg, waited 1 hour and 40 minutes – about an hour and a half longer than it has ever taken him before. There have been reports of three-hour lines in Brooklyn. Storm fallout, early voting delays, voter identification laws, new scanners, voting machine errors – a litany of problems are contributing to what in an era of supreme technological efficiency qualifies as what must be one of the most cumbersome efforts to get a box checked beside a candidate’s name in the recent history of America.
Not everyone has had it so rough, however. The state of Washington, in fact, has had a very low-stress voting day, because it had the good sense to switch to a mail-in ballot system that mixes the best of technology and an old-school paper trail to limit voter fraud, reduce voter-suppression efforts, save money, and avoid lines at polling places.
In an explanatory post headlined “Ohmigod, What the Fuck Has Happened to My Ballot?” (the mail-order equivalent of the website Where’s My Fucking Polling Place?), Seattle’s The Stranger explains the simple, democracy-arousing process, which goes something like this:
- Mail in your ballot or put it in a drop-box by voting day. You can check if it has been counted at the ballot tracker website.
- Your ballot is sorted by a Pitney-Bowes high-speed sorting machine.
- Trained specialists check the signature on your envelope against the signature on your file.
- A worker opens your ballot and checks for marks that may hamper the scanning process.
- If a ballot is marked for review, it goes to teams of two who attempt to determine the voter’s intent.
- Your ballot gets processed by a high-speed scanner, and data is stored on a secure server.
- On election night, the results are tabulated and reported.
Meanwhile, New Jersey is another state that doesn’t have to put up with voting lines this year. But it had to endure a destructive hurricane to earn that privilege. The state has permitted voters to submit their ballots by email or fax by 8pm Tuesday. This may have alleviated pressure on polling places in the storm-stricken state, but critics worry that the move will throw up a bunch of legal and technical hurdles. They point out that email isn’t reliable, confidential, or authenticated. Overseas residents who vote by email also have to submit a paper ballot, so vote-counters can verify the results.
Such security concerns also put the kibosh on the idea of voting by app, which 60 percent of smartphone owners say they would do, according to a survey by radio app Stitcher.
Which leaves Americans with the labor-intensive voting processes that exist today. They vary from state to state, but Washington’s system at least suggests that it’s possible to count votes in a way that saves time, money, and stress, without sacrificing security or verifiability. For those wary of technology, the system also preserves the all-important human touch.
So can we expect more states to move to the system for future elections? That depends. States are given individual power over the federal voting process, which on the face of it sounds problematic. Each state comes with its own political and institutional baggage that would make such a transition difficult.
The other issue is that it would complicate voter suppression, which, as Bloomberg’s Francis Wilkinson points out, is a mostly Republican tactic. In swing states like Florida and Ohio, where Republicans control the election boards amid shifting demographics that don’t necessarily favor their party, we may well find the opposition to such mail-in measures is intense.