Anxiety About the Confusion of Mail-In Voting Is Only Making Things Worse

Vote_Asset

Registration, education and action. We’re supporting voting in partnership with iamavoter.com, a nonpartisan movement encouraging voting, and civic engagement.

You may have already gotten a postcard in the mail from the United States Postal Service about voting by mail. If you haven’t, you probably will soon. It’s being sent to every residential address and PO Box in the country. And, like everything else with the post office these days, it’s resulting in controversy as politicians and election officials are on edge about the institution’s role in the upcoming election.

On Saturday, a federal judge granted Colorado a restraining order against the post office from mailing the postcards on the grounds that doing so could create “irreparable harm” by spreading misinformation among Colorado voters. The main issue, according to Colorado’s lawsuit, is that the postcard’s checklist includes an item instructing prospective voters to “Request your mail-in ballot (often called ‘absentee’ ballot) at least 15 days before Election Day.” The problem is, in a few states such as Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Washington, voters will automatically be receiving ballots in the mail, so they don’t have to request them. Officials from Utah, Nevada, and Maryland have echoed Colorado’s concerns about the mailer, although none have thus far filed suit.

Vote by mail information postcard sent by USPS

The vote-by-mail postcard sent by USPS. Photo by Aaron Gordon

Because of this apparent discrepancy, U.S. District Court judge William J. Martinez granted the restraining order on the grounds that the postcard “likely interferes with Colorado citizens’ fundamental right to vote.” Martinez went on to write in his ruling that “the Court is deeply troubled by the challenged conduct intentionally undertaken by these Defendants.”

The USPS asked the judge to reconsider the restraining order because, among other things, the postcard doesn’t even describe Colorado state law. The postcard is a checklist for voters to follow to ensure their vote gets to election officials by election day. For voters in the few states that will automatically get a ballot, they can consider that box already checked, the USPS argued. The judge didn’t buy it and rejected the motion.

The restraining order is doubly bizarre because, as the USPS pointed out in its motion, as of Sunday about 75 percent of the postcards sent to Colorado addresses have already been delivered and a further 15 percent sorted by delivery point sequence, meaning they could not be easily removed from the delivery process. That means, according to the USPS, only 10 percent of the postcards in Colorado could still be halted. Insofar as the courts and Colorado election officials believe the postcards will cause “irreparable harm,” the harm has already been caused.

And what is the harm we’re talking about here? What does the postcard actually tell voters to do? It tells them to visit usps.com/votinginfo, which then redirects them to usa.gov/electionoffice in order to find their state’s specific voting guidelines. After selecting, say, Colorado, a voter is then redirected to the state’s Secretary of State website, the official who oversees the voting process in that state. Ironically, it is that person, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who is suing USPS over the postcard, even though by following the instructions on the postcard, a voter ends up at her website which has her picture at the top of it.

Still, perhaps a voter doesn’t actually go to the website but is merely confused by the seemingly contradictory advice from the postcard and what they know about how elections are run in their state. The absolute worst-case scenario for that voter is they do nothing and a ballot shows up in their mailbox. Either way, they have their ballot.

Colorado Department of State spokesperson Betsy Hart told Motherboard there were other issues with the postcard. For example, Colorado residents in the southwest part of the state have their mail routed through Albuquerque, New Mexico. Hart said it can take up to eight days for ballots to make the trip back to the county clerk, so the postcard’s advice to mail the ballot back seven days in advance may not be sufficient. Plus, the mailer didn’t mention anything about drop boxes. In the past, Hart said, about 75 percent of Colorado voters return their ballots via drop box. Hart also emphasized that based on their office’s relationship with local USPS election offices, they remain confident in the post office’s ability to handle election mail. Their problem is with the national level issuing guidance that doesn’t fully reflect local election rules.

In the grand scheme of things, what ends up happening with this postcard is not all that important. Most people won’t read it and those who do won’t think very hard about it. I can’t help comparing the purported “misinformation” on this postcard with the profound falsehoods about the voting process routinely shared by Trump on social media platforms and during press conferences, misinformation that gets flagged for being potentially dubious at best.

American voters have every reason to be confused about how elections work in this country and how mail-in voting works in particular. To many elected officials who rely on low voter turnout and misinformation to win elections, that confusion is a feature, not a bug. A postcard is neither the cause of nor solution to any of that.

Subscribe to The Mail, Motherboard’s newsletter about the USPS, voting security, and democracy.