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Mail-in-vote mess must be fixed very soon for a credible Nov. 3 election

Mail-in-vote mess must be fixed very soon for a credible Nov. 3 election

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The recent primary didn’t just determine the candidates for the Nov. 3 ballot. It also showed that massive mail-in voting isn’t secure, isn’t fair to many voters, and isn’t likely to deliver timely and credible results in the fall general election.

Unsurprisingly, neither state and local election boards nor the U.S. Postal Service are equipped to handle the back-and-forth mail deluge required for holding an election by mail. With less than three months before the much larger presidential election, there may not be time for slow-moving government bureaucracies to develop the reliable organizations and procedures needed.

They already exist in the established system of polling places where voters cast ballots on machines under the oversight of election officials and members of opposing political parties. The machines and the computers that tabulate their counts are secure.

Yet when one of the Republican commissioners on the Atlantic County Board of Elections urged voters to cast ballots at the polls instead of by mail, Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman called for her to resign. He said it was “not her place” to be urging people to use a particular form of voting.

A couple of days later, Suleiman offered no criticism of an apparent breach of ordinary election security.

One of the Democratic staff members at the county Board of Elections allegedly accessed and handled mailed-in ballots alone on a weekend — with no oversight by anyone else.

Longstanding practice by election boards requires that a Republican and Democrat be present whenever ballots are handled. The secure voting structure is based on this mutual oversight principle, with election boards and staffs having an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, and polling places allowing both Republican and Democratic poll watchers.

But when asked about the apparent private handling of several thousand ballots by a fellow Democrat, Suleiman said that if the election board wants to prevent unmonitored handling of ballots, it should make a formal rule prohibiting it.

His counterpart, county Republican Chairman Keith Davis, asked state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to investigate the matter.

If mail-in elections make possible new kinds of vote fraud, it’s only a matter of time before unscrupulous party operatives or enterprising criminals take advantage of them. Past experience in Atlantic City and elsewhere in New Jersey has shown that.

The mail-vote primary also caused logistical problems. The count wasn’t finished for weeks and didn’t include the likely legitimate ballots of an indeterminate number of voters.

Some ballots were postmarked July 8, the day after the primary election. After the postal service said it must have received them July 7 and postmarked them in error, they were counted.

Other completed mail ballots were sent back to voters by mistake. Many voters whose signatures on their mail ballots didn’t seem to match those on file were sent “cure letters” so they could attest that the ballot was theirs. Any military personnel overseas who needed to fill out a cure letter probably didn’t even get it before the deadline for its return receipt.

Even though the count wouldn’t be completed for weeks, Democrats seemed to know the results of the mail-in vote before the polls closed — conceding the winner of their main contest before any vote totals were announced. That suggests improper procedures and lack of ballot security.

The chair of the Atlantic County Board of Elections, Evelynn Caterson, in a guest commentary in The Press last week urged several improvements in the mail-in-voting process. The postal service should process ballots more reliably and delivery them more speedily. It should be possible to easily update records in the state voter registration computer system, and for hundreds of election officials to access the system at once. And the whole mail-voting schedule should be moved up to give boards more time to process and count. That means mail ballots should be sent to voters the first week of September.

That would encourage voting two months before the general election — the most important two months for campaigning by far in the normal electoral process, before it was distorted by coronavirus pandemic concerns.

In her Tweet urging people to vote in person instead of by mail, board Commissioner Mary Jo Couts said that if pandemic emergency rules allow people to stand in line at department stores, surely it’s OK to vote while maintaining such social distancing.

Some who prefer mail-in voting may wish to suppress such a view. But if the Nov. 3 vote and count are a debacle that further tears apart society, many may wish the majority of ballots were cast the tried and true way in person at polling places.

The state and county boards of election must ensure that the voting process is secured against possible fraud, fair to all voters and capable of delivering timely and believable results — within a week, at least.

If the forced hybrid of the election and postal bureaucracies can’t confidently ensure that, enough voting in person should be encouraged to help make this ultimate expression of American self-government credible overall.

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