Election administration explained: How absentee voting works

By: - July 11, 2022 6:00 am

The major questions: How is each ballot associated with a particular voter so that double voting is prevented? And how is the secrecy of the ballot preserved? Photo by Tony Webster.

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 places are computerized.” 

Every Minnesota voter has the option to vote absentee, whether they do it by mail or in person at their local elections office. Many Minnesota voters have exercised this option: For the 2020 general election, more than half did, about twice the usual proportion.

Even among this group with personal experience, however, not everyone understands the safeguards that undergird this important means of voter participation. Many questions about absentee voting boil down to a pair of concerns. First, how is each ballot associated with a particular voter so that double voting is prevented and lost ballots can be replaced? Second, how is the ballot disassociated from that voter so that the votes they cast remain secret?

When an absentee ballot arrives at a local elections office for counting, it’s not like a ballot deposited in a polling-place ballot box. At the polling place, the ballot is cast with no physically associated paperwork for context — all the record-keeping was done earlier, when the voter signed in. By contrast, if you were to somehow get your hands on a blank ballot, fill it out, and mail it on its own to the elections office, they’d set it aside uncounted. They only accept a ballot if it arrives inside a completed signature envelope.

Nor can you just create your own signature envelope. The elections office will only accept one they previously sent you. They’re looking for the label they put on before sending the signature envelope to you. That label contains your name and address. But it also contains an identifying code number linked in the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) to the specific ballot transmittal.

The barcode on the signature-envelope label is just a labor-saving way for the elections office to look up the SVRS ballot record when they receive the envelope. If the barcode scanner weren’t working, the elections office could look the record up by typing the number in. 

The essential point is this: They do look it up. So even counterfeiting a realistic-looking label wouldn’t help you get a ballot counted: There needs to be a genuine record of the ballot having been sent out.

Each ballot record in SVRS has an associated status. Once a particular ballot has been accepted, it can’t be accepted again — so there’s no possibility for double voting, even if someone were to photocopy a label. And if a ballot gets lost, there’s no problem issuing a replacement to the same voter — it is assigned a new ID number and the old one is marked with a status of “lost or spoiled.” That way, only the replacement can be accepted — the old one is rendered harmless.

Usually, the reason why the elections office sends a voter a blank ballot with a labeled signature envelope is because they applied for it. However, a few percent of all Minnesota voters live in rural areas where the local governing board has chosen not to have a precinct polling place, and instead to send a ballot packet to each registered voter. Even in 2020, when many local jurisdictions chose this option, it only amounted to 5.7% of all votes. Minnesota law refers to this as “mail balloting” as contrasted with “absentee voting,” but the nomenclature isn’t used consistently even by Minnesotans, let alone across states. The important points are that it is rare and operates largely the same as ordinary absentee voting.

In these rural areas that send mail ballots out without needing requests, each is associated with a registered voter from the get-go. However, even an ordinary absentee ballot is nearly always associated in SVRS with a specific registered voter from the moment the absentee ballot application is processed, before the ballot is delivered.

The only exception is for a new voter who doesn’t have a voter registration record until the county processes the voter registration application the voter returns with the ballot. Just 3–5% of absentee ballot transmittals have been to new voters, according to data from the office of the secretary of state. And even those ballots are tied in SVRS to the identifying information from the absentee application. A second application from the same voter would still be recognized, preventing a double vote. 

Beyond tying each received ballot back to a specific ballot transmittal, the signature envelope serves three other functions. As the name suggests, it is where the voter signs to certify their eligibility. It also contains sufficient information to corroborate the voter’s identity. Generally 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 fallback, if the ID number is missing or doesn’t match the voter’s record, the signature can also serve this role. In this case, two election judges of different major parties compare the signature to the one on the application form

Finally, the envelope must also be signed by another individual who has witnessed that the voter started with a blank ballot and after voting sealed it without showing it to anyone else.

There’s more to know about how ballot applications are processed, ballots are issued to voters, and completed signature envelopes are checked. For any ballot envelope that doesn’t meet the acceptance criteria, there are mechanisms to promptly notify the voter and give them another opportunity to vote. And there is the connection to ordinary polling place voting, ensuring that each voter can vote either absentee or at their polling place, but not both.

Let’s set all of those topics aside, however, and turn to the other question stated at the outset. 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 is instructed to enclose their ballot in three nested envelopes. The outermost is an ordinary postage-paid mailing envelope used for getting the ballot back to the elections office, if it isn’t voted in person or returned by drop-off. Next comes the signature envelope described previously. And then comes an opaque tan secrecy envelope concealing the marked ballot.

The accepted signature envelopes are stored separately for each precinct. Once the absentee ballot board is ready to tabulate the ballots from a particular precinct, they open all the accepted signature envelopes for that precinct and remove the tan secrecy envelope from each, making sure that each signature envelope only has one secrecy envelope.

At this point, the ballot board has two stacks of envelopes, one of empty signature envelopes and the other of sealed secrecy envelopes. After verifying that they match up, the board members set the signature envelopes aside to be archived for 22 months, in case there is any challenge filed in court.

Now there is only a stack of sealed tan envelopes, all identical, none tied to any particular voter’s name. The ballot board members open each and remove the enclosed ballot. (What if there’s more than one voted ballot in the same secrecy envelope? Then none of them are counted.) At this point, the ballot board members can safely look at the ballots, for example, to deal with any that have been damaged. The voters have been disassociated from them.

In some states, a voter privacy mechanism such as this can become an extra stumbling block for voters. That is, a voter who fails to properly use the envelopes can get their ballot rejected. However, Minnesota law specifically provides that “Failure to place the ballot within the secrecy envelope before placing it in the outer white envelope is not a reason to reject an absentee ballot.”

Is absentee voting perfect, immune from all possibilities of error or malfeasance? Nope. No more so than any voting method is, or any human endeavor, for that matter. But the mechanisms described above ensure that absentee voting provides Minnesotans the same basic service as voting at the polling place. Each voter can cast one secret ballot.

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Max Hailperin
Max Hailperin

Max Hailperin is a professor emeritus of mathematics, computer science, and statistics at Gustavus Adolphus College. He earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and S.B. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since 2010, he has specialized in the intersection between election technology and election policy, and in 2014, he was awarded the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) Medallion Award “in recognition of his service and contributions to election-related technology and legislation.”