lessons from America

One in the (postal) bag for Obama

A number of my American friends living in London have already sent back their absentee ballots.  Meghan herself has just done it – see photo of her NY ballot paper and read her comments on the process.

Last Friday I met up for dinner with a friend who is registered to vote in Florida.  Miami-Dade County to be precise.  That was one of the hotspots back in 2000, with shenigans (definitely), irregularities (alleged) and the likelihood of votes not counting that should have been, and vice-versa.  Anyway, she showed me a sealed envelope with her completed ballot inside.  A vote for Obama she proudly proclaimed. The envelope was posted over weekend – apparently the lady at the post office even wished her luck.  Now the ballot paper should be winging its merry way to Florida to await being processed and added into the Obama column once polls have closed and votes are counted.

Or will it? …. The counting of absentee ballot papers is a contentious and complicated issue, and plenty of urban myths and anecdotes abound.  I’ve done some web research on it (useful discussions here, here and here) but don’t claim this is a definitive answer.  Absentee ballots [postal votes in UK parlance] are counted separately from in-person votes and often totalled up separately; sometimes on election night, but usually it can take several weeks, especially as some states allow absentee ballots to come in up to ten days after close of polling.  My belief is that Florida is one of those states – it certainly used to be.  The official guidelines say the ballot “must be mailed or delivered in person to the Supervisor of Elections no later than 7 p.m. on election day.”  That could mean, as has happened in the past,  that ballots are continued to be accepted for a defined provided that they are postmarked no later than the day of the election.  Or even in the absence of a postmark (as I saw remarked in one place and I don’t know if this is still true or not) if the witness’s signature is dated no later than the election day.  Either way, the official result, as certified by the State’s top election official, is often not for several weeks after the election itself.  But that final result does include all the verified absentee ballots.  So the answer is yes, absentee votes do count.

However, there are a couple of caveats; although hopefully some of these should have been lessened by the passing of the Help America Vote Act.   A major problem (in Florida in 2000 especially and other places too) was the lack of a properly implemented standard for physically verifying and counting those absentee ballots.  Different pollworkers and different counties might interpret what constituted a valid vote in a  different way.  Primarily, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, there needs to be “tighter security and better training for poll workers counting absentee ballots.”   One other problem my friend didn’t encounter but in the past has been significant is the late sending out of ballots to voters. As Fairvote reports, “in Broward County, Florida, 58,000 absentee ballots were sent out late for the 2004 election. Many voters simply did not have the time to mark their ballot and send it in to be counted”.  Still to early to know if it might be factor this election.

There is one plausible way though that some absentee voters could feel themselves disenfranchised: that is politically.   As pointed out on the FairVote website:

“How many times on election night have we gone to bed thinking a particular candidate or ballot measure was winning in a close race, only to find that after absentee and provisional ballots were counted the results had changed? …  If the race is close, final determination will depend on the counting of absentee and provisional ballots. If the race is not close, we will know who won on election night.”

If you aren’t in a battleground state or if one candidate wins by a landslide, your vote will count in the official tallies, but it makes no difference to the media and political narrative of the election.  However, if in the state you voted in the result is close or perceived to be so, then suddenly your ballot paper matters again.  It’s not just down to the voters though.  The decision on whether your vote is seen as important on election night and how it can affect the result can also be made by the TV networks if/when they ‘call’ a race and by the pundits and party spokespeople as they spin that decision and the campaigns’ response. And we all know of or remember the horrors of that fateful night in November 2000.  2004 wasn’t far off either. 

Here’s hoping every absentee vote does count this time.  But time, luck, human failings, partisan judgement and the overall electoral picture will determine how close we get to that ideal.  And fingers-crossed in Florida especially: for the right result democratically and politically.


October 23, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, systems | , , , , | 1 Comment