Election Administration Explained: How Postal Voting Works
This is part of an occasional series on election administration. Read Part 1, “Who does what?” Part 2, “Who can vote in Minnesota?” And part 3: “How and why polling stations are computerized.”
Every voter in Minnesota has the possibility of voting by mail, whether they do so by mail or in person at their local election office. Many Minnesota voters exercised this option: For the 2020 general election, more than half did so, about double the usual proportion.
However, even among this group with personal experience, not everyone understands the safeguards that underlie this important means of electoral participation. Many questions about absentee voting boil down to a pair of concerns. First, how is each ballot associated with a particular voter to avoid double voting and replace lost ballots? Second, how is the ballot disassociated from that voter so that the votes they cast remain secret?
When a mail-in ballot arrives at the local elections office to be counted, it is not like a ballot dropped into a ballot box at a polling station. At the polling station, the ballot is cast without physically associated paperwork for context – all record keeping was done earlier, when the voter logged on. On the other hand, if you were to somehow get your hands on a blank ballot, fill it out, and ship it alone to the election office, they would set it aside without counting. They only accept a ballot if it arrives inside a completed signature envelope.
Nor can you simply create your own signature envelope. The Elections Office will only accept one that they have already sent to you. They look for the label they affixed before sending you the signed envelope. This label contains your name and address. But it also contains an identification code number linked in the statewide voter registration system (SVRS) to the specific transmission of the ballot.
The barcode on the signature envelope label is just a simple way for the elections office to find the SVRS voting record when they receive the envelope. If the barcode reader did not work, the elections office could search for the file by typing in the number.
The key point is this: they do Look for it. So even forging a realistic-looking label wouldn’t help you make a ballot count: there must be a genuine record of the ballot sent.
Every voting record in SVRS has an associated status. Once a ballot has been accepted, it cannot be accepted again — so there is no possibility of double voting, even if someone were to photocopy a label. And if a ballot is lost, there is no problem issuing a replacement to the same voter – he is assigned a new ID number and the old one is marked with the status “lost or void”. In this way, only the replacement can be accepted – the old one is rendered harmless.
Usually the reason the election office sends a voter a blank ballot with a labeled envelope with signature is that they requested it. However, a few percent of all Minnesota voters live in rural areas where the local board has chosen not to have a precinct polling place, and instead send a ballot to each registered voter. Even in 2020, when many local jurisdictions have chosen this option, he only accounted for 5.7% of all votes. Minnesota law refers to this as “postal vote“as opposed to”postal votebut the nomenclature is not used consistently even by Minnesotans, let alone state to state. The important points are that it is rare and works much the same as ordinary postal voting.
In those rural areas that send mail-in ballots without the need for applications, everyone is paired with a registered voter from the get-go. However, even a regular mail-in ballot is almost always associated in SVRS with a specific registered voter from the time the mail-in ballot request is processed, before the ballot is delivered.
The only exception is for a new voter who does not have a voter registration record until the county processes the voter registration application that the voter returns with the ballot. According to data from the Secretary of State’s office, only 3-5% of mail-in ballots were passed to new voters. And even those ballots are linked in SVRS to the absentee request credentials. A second candidacy from the same voter would always be recognized, avoiding a double vote.
In addition to tying each received ballot to a specific ballot transmission, the signature envelope performs three other functions. As the name suggests, this is where the voter signs to certify their eligibility. It also contains enough information to corroborate the voter’s identity. Typically, this is an identifying number such as a Minnesota driver’s license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number. However, as a workaround, if the identification number is missing or does not match the voter’s record, the signature can also play this role. In this case, two election judges from different major parties compare the signature to that on the application form.
Finally, the envelope must also be signed by another person who saw that the voter started with a blank ballot and sealed it after voting without showing it to anyone else.
There’s more to know about how ballot applications are processed, ballots are delivered to voters, and completed signature envelopes are verified. For any ballot envelope that does not meet the acceptance criteria, there are mechanisms to promptly notify the voter and provide another opportunity to vote. And there is the link to voting at ordinary polling stations, ensuring that each voter can vote either by post or at their polling station, but not both.
Let’s leave all these topics aside, however, and move on to the other question posed at the beginning. If each absentee ballot is closely associated with a particular voter, how is the privacy of the voter’s choices maintained?
In Minnesota, each absentee voter must enclose their ballot in three nested envelopes. The outermost is a regular postage paid envelope used to return the ballot to the Elections Office, if not voted in person or returned by drop off. Next comes the signature envelope described earlier. Next comes an opaque, tan-colored secret envelope hiding the marked ballot.
Accepted signature envelopes are stored separately for each constituency. Once the mail-in polling station is ready to tabulate the ballots for a particular constituency, it opens all accepted signature envelopes for that constituency and removes the beige confidentiality envelope from each, ensuring that each signature envelope has only one confidentiality envelope.
At this point, the polling station has two stacks of envelopes, one of empty signature envelopes and the other of sealed secret envelopes. After verifying their consistency, the members of the board set aside the signature envelopes to archive them for 22 months, in the event of a legal challenge.
Now there is just a pile of beige-colored sealed envelopes, all identical, none linked to a particular voter’s name. The members of the polling station each open and withdraw the attached ballot paper. (What if there is more than one ballot in the same secret envelope? So none of them are counted.) At this point, members of the polling station can view the ballot papers securely, for example to treat those who have been damaged. The voters were dissociated from it.
In some states, a voter privacy mechanism like this can become an additional stumbling block for voters. In other words, a voter who does not use the envelopes correctly may have their ballot rejected. However, Minnesota the law expressly provides that “failure to place the ballot in the secret envelope before placing it in the white outer envelope is no reason for rejecting a mail-in ballot.”
Is postal voting perfect, free from any possibility of error or embezzlement? No. Neither does any method of voting, or any human endeavor, for that matter. But the mechanisms described above ensure that absentee voting provides Minnesotans with the same basic service as voting at the polls. Each voter can cast a secret ballot.