Absentee ballot envelope design, the Texas debacle, and the one coming to Georgia

Georgia’s SB 202, enacted in 2021, included a provision to change how it verified absentee ballot submissions. Instead of relying on signature verification, which had been the subject of extensive litigation ahead of the 2020 election, the state would move to the last four digits of a Georgia driver’s license or identification card; the last four digits of a social security number; or an affirmation that a voter lacks that information. Texas followed suit with a similar provision in SB 1 (although it did not eliminate the signature requirement; it simply made the signature “rebuttably presumed” to be valid if the ballot envelope had the ID number, something of a belt-and-suspenders approach).

Unlike some others, I’m not inherently opposed to this move (at least in Georgia). Signatures are a very nineteenth-century way of verifying identity (especially given the litigation in Georgia). Maybe a move to something like identification numbers is a cleaner, simpler approach to quickly determining whether the sender is who she purports to be. Maybe. Disclosing your identification number is more difficult than simply affixing your signature (although there are disputes brewing in court about how much more difficult and whether the burdens disproportionately fall on some voters).

But I want to focus on a different issue: an absentee ballot envelope design problem. A signature on an envelope is unlikely to inspire much of a security issue. Signatures are ubiquitous. Forging them requires some (not much) effort, and signatures are easy to find anywhere. We don’t think much about “revealing” that information on an envelope.

But including the last four digits of your driver’s license or, more importantly, your social security number is not only a security risk for someone who wants to commit fraud using your identity in future elections (ironically, a fraud-prevention solution that could induce fraud more easily in the future) but also other uses of this personally-identifiable information.

The solution, then, is to require the information to be placed in a “secure” location. Here’s Georgia’s SB 202:

The envelope shall be designed so that the number of the elector’s Georgia driver’s license or identification card issued pursuant to Article 5 of Chapter 5 of Title 40, the last four digits of the elector’s social security number, and the elector’s date of birth shall be hidden from view when the envelope is correctly sealed.

And Texas’s SB 1:

The carrier envelope must include a space that is hidden from view when the envelope is sealed for the voter to enter the following information:
(1) the number of the voter ’s driver ’s license, election identification certificate, or personal identification card issued by the Department of Public Safety;
(2) if the voter has not been issued a number described by Subdivision (1), the last four digits of the voter ’s social security number; or
(3) a statement by the applicant that the applicant has not been issued a number described by Subdivision (1) or (2).

I doubt that any election administrator would advocate for this kind of envelope design.

In the old days when I used to pay bills by mail, envelopes would occasionally have information under the seal flap that offered a small “reminder” checklist to ensure you included your check, your bill stub, and that you wrote your account number on your check (just to name one example). But it was a small reminder at the last spot your eyes might look before you sealed the envelope. It was nothing substantive. And if you sealed the envelope, you couldn’t see that information, and you may well not have completed it. (Some, I imagine, do not complete the exterior of the envelope until after they’ve sealed it.)

It’s increasingly obvious, however, that this “security” design is causing voters to fail to complete the information they need for their vote to count. The Texas Tribune latched onto this early in February:

The ID requirements forced a redesign of the carrier envelopes used to return mail-in ballots, allowing them to be sealed in a way that protects a voter’s sensitive information while traveling through the mail. The ID field was placed under the envelope flap. But based on early figures, local election officials this week said they feared voters were missing it altogether.

The most recent estimates suggest that 13% of absentee ballots submitted in the most recent Texas primary were not counted. That’s after the period to cure any deficiencies. Frankly, it’s a pretty terrible number. The Washington Post reports:

The reason: In many of these places, the main problem wasn’t just people failing to meet the ID requirements; it was people failing to provide any ID information at all. The Texas Tribune reported last week that this accounted for most of the rejected ballots in Dallas County, for instance. And a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state told The Post that this was also true statewide, suggesting perhaps this is largely about poor design and a lack of adequate voter education.

“All of these voters successfully received a mail-in ballot using ID information for the application, which means for the most part the rejections are because the voter simply forgot to include the ID information on the carrier envelope,” Taylor said. “We’re looking at a design fix to make sure that section is highlighted in some way, and also more voter education through our ad campaign.”

Here’s another anecdote from one voter:

“This is happening to average, ordinary people,” said Carolyn Shannon, a Tarrant County voter. “I mean, I’m not anybody important. I’m just a voter, and I think it’s important that I be able to continue to do that.”

The 69-year-old Hurst resident has never had issues voting by mail before, but this year was different.

Shannon, who is visually impaired, filled out her ballot and sent it in as she usually does, but didn’t notice a place on the envelope for her to include identification information.

Less than a week before Election Day, Shannon said she received a phone call informing her of a ballot error. She was told to go to the election clerk, void her mail-in ballot and vote in person.

The task felt insurmountable. Shannon was confident she wouldn’t be able to vote. She needed transportation to the polls and spent two days trying to figure out how to get there.

It seems that these aren’t ineligible voters, or voters who are casting ballots on behalf of someone else. The bulk of these appear to be simply omissions, stemming at least in part from a poorly-designed envelope required by the statute.

Texas has a relatively low absentee voter base because it offers limited opportunities for absentee voting (hardly “no excuse” in the state of Texas). What happens when that hits Georgia, which saw an uptick in absentee voting in 2020 and has no-excuse absentee voting?

In short, it’s not clear to me that the absentee ballot design problem is going to be solved anytime soon. “Educating voters” is a monumental task. The hiccups are always greatest the first time around, too. A better effort would have been a “grace period” election, an election with the requirement in place, but that it would not be enforced or a basis to disqualify a ballot, but voters would be notified that they omitted important information on the ballot that they would need to include next time for their vote to count. (Texas, given that it continues to require a signature, would be a natural place for this grace period.)

It’s also not clear how to improve this statutory requirement in any way to preserve secrecy while ensuring voter completion of essential information. It may be that administrators in Texas, Georgia, and elsewhere (among states considering such bills, like Iowa) will solve this problem. But, at the moment, it’s a debacle in the making for states planning to use this technique in future elections.

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