Thinking about voiding your mail-in ballot? Experts say you should think twice

An election worker hands a sheet of

An election worker hands a sheet of "I Voted Today" stickers to a voter in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Some anxious Philly voters that requested mail-in ballots now want to vote in person instead — and the trend has some experts worried that these Election Day audibles could do more harm than good.

Voters that already received mail-in ballots do still have the option to instead vote using a machine on Election Day. The process works like this: Voters bring their mail ballot and envelope to their polling place on Election Day, sign an affidavit with the judge of elections voiding that document, then proceed to a voting booth.

Although there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are less secure than those cast in a voting booth, Michael and Monique McCrossen, both Democrats, say they are now planning to void their mail-in ballots on Election Day. They worry that President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the integrity of the vote-by-mail system could mean mail ballots will be viewed as less legitimate or more vulnerable to legal challenges or counted too late to matter.

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“Our concern now is the possibility, however remote, that signatures won’t match up or something,” said Michael McCrossen, an attorney. “Or, because the state cannot begin counting mail ballots until Election Day, the nightmare scenario of Trump appearing to be ahead on Election Day only to be surpassed later by Biden.”

This anxiety in Philadelphia is most acute among Democratic voters for other reasons: They make up nearly 77% of the city’s electorate and requested mail ballots at higher rates than Republicans. Both city election officials and local Democratic campaign operatives say a prospective surge of voters deciding to tactically scrap their mail-in ballots might cause unanticipated problems.

Democratic election lawyer Adam Bonin underscored that ballots mailed sufficiently in advance of Election Day or turned in at satellite voting centers are just as secure as machine votes. In contrast, he noted that the process of voiding a ballot was more time consuming than conventional voting, meaning it could back up lines at already busy polling places.

He urged those that do choose to surrender their mail-in ballots to do so at times when voting booths would be less busy.

“People should vote however they’re comfortable,” Bonin said. “But people who really want to do that should try to do that in the middle of the day and not during peak hours, in case it is something which slows down the line.”

The City Commissioners Office, charged with administering Philadelphia’s election process, also sought to quell fears about ballot-counting delays, insisting the city would be ready for Election Day and that voting-by-mail was safe and secure.

“There are many ways a voter can return a ballot — by mail, or directly to any of the satellite centers, or at the soon-to-be-announced purpose-built ballot boxes,” said spokesperson Kevin Feeley, referring to so-called ‘drop boxes’ that would be deployed ahead of the vote. “Whichever way they choose, voters can rest assured that all ballots properly and received on time will be counted.”

Republican Commissioner Al Schmidt echoed this plea. While he did not criticize those that elect to void their mail-in ballots, he did acknowledge that this process takes time.

“This process will most certainly take longer than simply signing the pollbook to vote,” he said.

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But the decision can still be a pernicious one for unusually attentive voters, like South Philly-based attorney J.R. King. He specifically requested a mail ballot early to ensure that his vote wouldn’t be derailed by COVID-19, crowds at polling places, or other snafus. But now he said he’s more worried his mail ballot won’t be counted as quickly as those cast at voting machines.

“I’m concerned because I don’t want, on Election Night, the president to appear to have a lead. So, I want my vote to be counted on Election Night,” King said.

So, King devised a plan to void his ballot and cast a machine vote instead. He was eventually talked out of doing so by friends on social media, but he still feels miffed about the whole affair.

“Had I known that there was going to be 800 polling places for the general election, I would not have requested a mail-in ballot,” he said.

Mary Chen, a West Philly-based sex therapist, said she too went through a moment of “panic” after hearing reports about turmoil within the United States Postal Service. She began researching options to send back the mail ballot she had requested all the way back in April.

“As the election was nearing I decided that I wanted to vote in person to have my vote show up immediately,” she said.

Ultimately, she too decided against it — Chen had volunteered to be a poll worker and said she could envision herself or another worker getting swamped by requests to process numerous voided ballots on a busy Election Day.

“I got a sense of the scope of challenges they’re having with poll staffing this year and that was when I was happy that I had a mail ballot coming so I could relieve strain on the polls,” she said.

Although mail ballots include prepaid postage, she decided to skip the postal service altogether and drop off her completed ballot at a satellite voting center, a process she described as “seamless.”

Today, she advised other voters to pursue whichever option they were most comfortable with but said she was happy with her decision.

“Everyone is so anxious about this election and making sure it goes through and everything gets pulled off during a pandemic. And in our efforts to be super on top of it, we’re like tripping over our own feet,” she said. “I’m a sex therapist. So, I tried to practice what I preach on not overthinking things.”

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