Many years ago I taught a very large lecture course and to facilitate grading 400 exams I asked the students to write the number of the essay they chose to do on the front of their blue books. I wrote several times on the exam in bold type, Write the number of the essay you choose on the cover of your blue book. After a few experiences I also formed separate piles in the classroom when the students handed in their exams with a sign indicating the number of the essay. This pile is Essay 1. This pile is Essay 2. Etc.

If you've taught – from preschool to grad school – you know that no matter how many times or how clearly you give instructions, some students won't follow them. You can get to the point that most do if you're persistent, but for whatever reason some of them either won't read, won't listen, or won't process them. Of course in the example above it's not a big deal. It wasn't like they failed the exam if they put theirs in the wrong pile, or didn't mark the cover of their book. In that case the only consequence was me and the teaching assistants wondering why they can't follow simple directions to make our job a tiny bit easier.

One of the issues – not problems, but an issue to be aware of – with mail-in ballots is that the instructions create opportunities to reject ballots. To use the example of the recent Kentucky primary, ballots were rejected for failure to sign, failure to sign in the correct place, failure to enclose the ballot in an inner envelope before putting it in the outer envelope…on and on. Petty stuff, but stuff that is going to get your ballot tossed if you don't read and follow directions correctly.

My point is not to stick up for or lambaste Tyranny via Petty Bureaucracy. Rules and procedures, in some form, have to exist during an election. At the same time, I – we all – know that some people will end up doing the procedure incorrectly even if objectively we think the instructions are clear and simple. Burmila's Law: Each additional step in the instructions will remove more ballots from the final tally. Because whether the instruction says "Sign Here" or "Slither up a greased pole and battle the Rancor to submit your vote" someone will forget to do it, or do it wrong.

In an election in which a lot of ballots are going to be cast by mail and it is patently obvious that Trump will use every possible mechanism to try to question the legitimacy of the ballots cast, I worry about the potential for these minor, insignificant instructions will toss otherwise valid votes. No voting system is perfect and the rejection rate on mail-in ballots has been low everywhere it has been tried. "Low" and "zero" aren't identical though. True, votes can get rejected when cast in-person too (by filling in too many votes for a single office, etc). From mail to paper to voting machines, none of it will ever be 100% perfect.

This election is likely to be closer than some of the very optimistic poll results from June-July may have suggested ("Biden +15!!") and every vote is going to matter. It's too late to substantially alter any of the procedures in place for requesting and then casting votes by mail; at this point we can only anticipate how it could matter. Some states, for example, still require voters to submit a paper form by mail to request an absentee/mail-in ballot. How many voters do you lose with each additional step? I'm not sure it can be measured, but it's above zero. Some people will forget. Some will not have a printer. Some will do it but not correctly or in time. Some will misread or not read the fine print and give a reason for their ballot to be rejected.

And this is going to get incredibly ugly, with a large number of mailed-in ballots, if in the end one candidate wins by a very narrow margin and the rejected ballots could – potentially – have made a difference. People will start howling to count them anyway, and states will flat-out refuse. The perfect recipe for an election outcome that isn't broadly perceived as legitimate.


  • I honestly don't think Ed's scenario will happen, because I think Trump will have a pretty clear lead on election night and Biden will immediately throw in the towel. People are going to be really surprised on election day when there simply aren't any polling places in major cities. COVID, sorry. Your polling place is now an abandoned church 20 miles outside of town, sorry no transit. Gertrude Elderstein will be your poll clerk for [checks notes] all of Detroit.

    I think about 2AM or so we'll see Biden conceding.

    Sure, it won't be a fair election. Sure, Barr will be announcing a major criminal investigation against Biden two weeks before the election. So what?

  • It’s good to imagine worst-case scenarios. It’s *very bad* to throw up your hands and declare that all is lost based on the worst-case scenario you yourself made up in your own head.

  • Ed –

    First, I hope you didn't mind my potty mouth in the comments from your last post so much.

    That having been said:

    "No voting system is perfect and the rejection rate on mail-in ballots has been low everywhere it has been tried. "

    That ain't true anymore. I worked on Suraj Patel's campaign for NY-12, and got my union local to endorse him. Between 20 and 30 per cent of absentee ballots, especially in Brooklyn and Queens where he had more support than our ossifying incumbent. You had to have seen the race in the news.

    Right now I don't trust New York's Board of Elections as far as I can throw them. Even before the primary, they tried to cancel the presidential primary, and tried to throw to Arab-American candidates off the ballot for a technicality that was so blatantly racist it was embarrassing.

    I'm presently communicating with my state senator (the primary teller-of-the-richest-man-in-the-world-to-go-fuck-himself) about shoring up our state's antediluvian election laws in time for the general election.

    And my state, I'm told, is one of the better ones with respect to the competence of the BOE. We're in for a fun ride.

  • I don't give a fuck. How many elections have there been now just like this, where Dems are the ones who have to suck up the close "loss"? If it turns out Biden squeaks by and the GOP morons are mad, guess what? FUCK THEM. They can go gripe about it on AM radio like they would do for anything under a 350 EV win. They do not think we have the moral authority to govern, and never view anything but right wing rule as legitimate. Dems need to stop pussyfooting around and tell them to fuck off. Biden should declare victory as soon as polls close in Cali, and then que sera, sera.
    But just in case I didn't say fuck the GOP already, FUCK THE GOP.

  • Funny how you spend so much ink complaining about how crap the voting system is, how the Cheeto is going to steal the election, blah de blah de blah blah blah.

    Given these factors, in concert with how much of a tinder box the nation is, how contentious the last election was, that many states do not have the infrastructure to handle a mass mail out, the fact that BOTH sides are already calling “Foul!”, that it will take additional time to tabulate the ballots, that states have their own rules…

    Just looking at that list alone should tell you that, perhaps just a mass mail out might not be the smartest thing. Unless you actually DO WANT a civil war.

    But I dunno, the guy with doctorate in the subject seems to think that despite ALL these warning signs, that we should proceed towards that cliff, because, “Something! Something! Orange Cheeto wants to steal the election!!!!111!!oneoneoneone!!1!!”

    Perhaps everyone should work on some kind of cross state compact that will shore up how the elections are managed, held, and get them standardised nationally so that there’s a confidence in the electoral process in the first place. Instead of trying to over turn the Electoral College, get it so that districts are properly drawn, move the elections to a Saturday, standardised ballot designs, standardised roll maintenance.

    But, nope! You just want to think the other guy stole the election.

    Apparently the guy with the doctorate also cannot see he’s promoting and championing the very behaviours that lead to the dystopian nightmare he apparently wants to live in. I guess if you want to find nazis, but can’t find any because none exist, you can create the circumstances that cause them to rise up.

  • @chuck:
    Hmmm…. NY, been D controlled for years, and you have minimal confidence in your own Electoral commission?
    The irony.

    And now you want to rollout a midstream change how many days from the election nationally?

    What could go wrong?

  • Here in NJ it is definitely an adventure to properly fill out a mail in ballot. Sign on this line, but do NOT sign on that line unless you meet some particular and rare circumstance. Place your ballot in an envelope, seal it, and place it inside ANOTHER envelope, and seal that. DO NOT, under any circumstances, tear the paper along the perforated tear-off line. Fill in your address here, but don't fill it in there unless there's an address change. It takes two minutes to fill out the ballot but 15 minutes to make sure you've properly dotted the I's and crossed the T's. And all of this is after you have already printed out, filled in, and mailed your mail-in ballot request to the county clerk, which requires a printer, envelope, and stamp, plus the additional lead time of an extra mailing and processing step.

  • @moop:

    First, New York is not a no excuse absentee state. The changes proposed would address that, if only temporarily. The state's election laws need sweeping changes, but it's too late for that right now.

    Second, it certainly ain't "my own Election commission." I enumerated the shenanigans the BOE tried to pull this year. And the rightward shift in the Democratic party in NY is emblematic of the party as a whole, and is in part resultant from the Republicans' shift to bat-shit racist craziness. Compared to today's Republicans, Rockefeller and Javits look like communists.

    And Andy Cuomo has an overdeveloped sense of spite, and is threatened by democracy.

  • And one other thing: the ratio of the amount of airtime given to Republicans at the Democratic convention over that given to Democrats I'd actually like to see approaches infinity.

  • Lob,

    I am not even an American, so feel free to discount what I write if you want to, but my question would be: why would the conservative states agree to any such compact? Your proposal seems like an immediate non-starter.

  • @ Lob:

    It exists, and it's called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact:

    And @Alex SL: it's less far from being put into effect than you might think.

    It's not as good as banning the racist and anachronistic Electoral College, but it's at least something.

  • This is completely off topic, but timely.

    The MLB Network replayed Tom Seaver's 300th win earlier this year, and Jerry Reinsdorf showed up in the post game to gloat about plucking Seaver from the Mets. I realized I started hating Reinsdorf a lot later than I should have.

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