Democrats' Reliance on Easily Disqualified Mail-In Ballots Could Cost Them | Opinion

With only three weeks left until the presidential election and with Joe Biden holding an impressive 10-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Democrats have good reason to be optimistic. Moreover, their efforts to persuade their supporters to mail in their ballots rather than risk their health by going to vote in person during the coronavirus pandemic also seems to have succeeded.

While there are no hard figures yet on how many Americans have already voted or will vote by mail, given the fear of COVID-19, the numbers could soar to as much as 40 percent of the total or more. The early indications are that Democrats hold a huge advantage among the mail-in or absentee ballots that have already been cast. That's especially true in the few key battleground states that will decide the contest in the Electoral College. Whether that is because Democrats seem to take the threat from the pandemic more seriously than Republicans or simply because conservatives have more traditional instincts, it's apparent that Trump voters are more likely to vote in person than Biden supporters.

But that's where the good news for Democrats ends and their worries begin.

By convincing so many of their supporters to vote by mail, the Democrats may have created a problem that could plunge the nation into a post-Election Day tangle of challenges and lawsuits that will make the Bush v. Gore nightmare of 2000 look like a picnic. Democrats may believe that moving to mail-in ballots expands the electorate and increases their vote totals. Yet by making themselves so dependent on absentee rather than in-person voting, they have also made themselves vulnerable to having a significant proportion of their votes go uncounted.

Trump has consistently denigrated mail-in ballots and claimed that their general use increases the likelihood of fraud and even calls into question the integrity of the election. Biden's supporters consider this yet another example of the president trying to suppress the vote by sowing baseless doubts about the system. But even if we accept assurances from liberals that voter fraud is rare, their reliance on the method has created a bigger problem, since a disproportionate number of mail-in ballots are rejected because of mistakes made either by the voter or the government agency proving the ballot.

A study published in USA Today showed that in 2016 as many as 315,651 ballots were rejected by authorities nationwide. Given the closeness of the race between Trump and Hillary Clinton, in which fewer than 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin gave Trump his Electoral College victory, that's a significant number. The authors point out that the number of rejected ballots in 2020 could be as high as 1,030,700, given the higher number of votes cast by mail. But they admit that the actual number could be higher still, since the vast majority of those availing themselves of the opportunity to vote by mail will be doing so for the first time. What's more, the same studies show that Democratic voters seem to be more likely than Republicans to make the sorts of mistakes that could disqualify their ballots.

Rules for voting by mail vary from state to state, but they all involve paying more attention to detail than merely showing up at a polling place and following the instructions of the officials whose business it is to help citizens cast their ballots. Voting by mail means filling out and then signing the ballot properly, placing it in the envelope(s) and putting it in the mail. Not everyone gets those details right. Just as important, the same is true of state, city and local boards of elections in many that are just as inexperienced in dealing with massive mail-in voting as are the voters. And their problems tend to vindicate Trump's warnings.

In deep-blue New York City, 100,000 Brooklyn residents who had requested absentee ballots received ones with incorrect names and addresses. Many voters received ballots marked "Absentee Military," though they weren't serving in the armed forces.

Any ballot sent in with the wrong address or name—rather than a corrected one that we're told voters will eventually receive—won't be counted. Ballots wrongly marked "military" will be counted, but many citizens won't use them. This could result in widespread disenfranchisement.

Florida Ballot
A mail-in ballot envelope addressed to the Miami-Dade County Elections Department is pictured in Doral, Florida, on October 1. Florida extended its voter registration deadline on Tuesday, after the state's online registration system crashed hours before the original Monday night deadline. Joe Raedle/Getty

In the New York primary held in June, the city got a taste of what happens when mailed-in ballots ­replace the in-person ballot box without adequate official preparation. Overall turnout was down this year—23 percent, compared to 33 percent in 2016—but the process was still a disaster. With 37 percent of the votes cast in the city sent in by mail, a staggering 84,000 ballots were disqualified for arriving late, lacking a postmark or not being signed by the voter. That's one-fifth of all mailed-in ballots.

The count was also a nightmare, with some close races in congressional primaries not being certified until more than two months after primary day.

These problems aren't limited to the incompetent bureaucrats running things in New York. Nationwide, in primaries held in 2020, more than 550,000 mailed-in ballots were disqualified. Even in states where exclusive voting by mail has been in place for years, and voters and officials supposedly know what they're doing, as many as 1 in 100 ballots get tossed.

The consequences of all these mailed-in ballots are painfully obvious.

Counting the votes will be much slower—adding to the tensions and anger already roiling the nation. In some states, mailed-in ballots can't be tabulated until Election Day, which means we may not know the outcome for days or even weeks.

A close race in battleground states will involve a laborious recount process that will involve looking at each mail-in vote that was rejected. The agony of Florida's Palm Beach County in 2000 could be repeated all over the nation on a far wider scale with battalions of partisan lawyers litigating every disputed vote. That more or less guarantees that any outcome other than a landslide victory for Biden will involve lawsuits that could delay the outcome until past the date for the Electoral College to cast votes, throwing the system into chaos.

That will be true even in the unlikely circumstance of both Biden and Trump behaving properly during this period—as opposed to inciting their supporters not to give in "under any circumstances," as Hillary Clinton advised her fellow Democrats. Throw in the very real possibility that the same people who resorted to riots and looting in "mostly peaceful" Black Lives Matter protests will do the same if it appears Trump is ahead or has a chance—something that is more likely if a massive number of Democrats make mistakes that lead to their ballots being thrown out—and you have a recipe for a national crisis.

This didn't need to happen. Contrary to the fear mongering, socially distanced voting in person is probably just as safe as going to the grocery store.

In the last few weeks, some liberal pundits have awoken to the danger and begun to express doubts about pushing Democrats to vote by mail. But the damage is already done since so many Democratic votes are already in the mail with far more to follow.

While liberals accuse Trump of trying to suppress the vote by pointing out the problems inherent in a mail-in election, relying on this method could cost the Democrats the election or ensure a process that will do more damage to democracy than anything Trump has said.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.