There has been considerable confusion surrounding how mail-in or absentee ballots are processed.
What’s the importance of the envelope?
How are mail-in or absentee ballots verified?
(Note: For clarity and brevity the term mail-in in this article refers to both the novel Coronavirus initiated mail-in ballots as well as absentee ballots)
First, mail-in ballots have three components. There is the external envelope, which contains the ballot and identifying inner envelope.
For the most part, the external envelope is largely immaterial.
Its main purpose, other than for mailing, is to keep mail-in ballots segregated at the county collection center until those ballots, by law, can be officially opened.
In effect, the external envelope keeps the voter’s intentions secret until the day of the election.
The external envelope, however, is not part of the vote tally process.
The most important components associated with the vote tally are the ballot and identifying inner envelope.
The ballot is important for obvious reasons—it represents the voter’s selection(s) in the election.
It is important to note: The mail-in process attempts to replicate in-person voting.
In the in-person voting process, voters must identify themselves, often signing their names to voter rolls, in order to receive a ballot.
The sign-in process captures the fact a registered voter has voted and acts as a security measure to ensure a person does not vote multiple times in the same election.
Mail-in ballots must perform the same security measures as in-person voting—hence, there is an inner envelope included in the mail-in ballot package which identifies the voter of the mail-in ballot.
Oddly, in-person voting does not tie a particular vote to an individual—i.e. there is anonymity associated with in-person voting that cannot be replicated with mail-in ballot voting.
Furthermore, the inner envelope, which identifies the voter associated with a particular mail-in ballot, must remain with the ballot.
The reason for keeping the identifying inner envelope with the ballot it accompanied has to do with the issue of provisional ballots.
Provisional Ballots Impact Mail-in Ballot Processing
To understand the process of handling mail-in ballots, whether absentee ballots or Coronavirus driven mail-in ballots, it is important to note: There is an inherent need to keep ballots and the identifying “inner” envelopes together.
The need arises based on provisional ballots.
(Note: The outer envelope, which contains the ballot and inner envelope holds no value, and therefore is discarded once the mail-in ballot package is allowed to be opened.)
If a voter has been denied the right to cast a ballot through the normal process, due to any number of reasons, the voter is given the ability to cast what is termed a “provisional ballot.”
True to its name, a provisional ballot—is just that, provisional.
A provisional ballot is not counted until it can be confirmed the voter is legally registered and has not voted via some other method—i.e. absentee/mail-in ballots.
In effect, the need to keep ballots and their identifying “inner” envelopes together has long been a part of the voting process to prevent double voting.
It is worth pointing out: mail-in ballots are returned to the county, where they are processed. Provisional ballots are handled at the precinct level, then sent to the county.
If a provisional ballot is cast at the precinct, to prevent double voting via mail-in—the names on the mail-in ballots must be compared to the name associated with the provisional ballot cast at the precinct.
The reconciliation process for provisional ballots generally takes place after the initial vote tally is compiled.
There are other reasons to keep mail-in ballots together with their identifying inner envelope—generally to clarify any potential dispute that may arise—for whatever reason.