Election Code Loopholes Hurt Candidates: And Help Harvesters
Imagine you are a candidate for office. The votes are in and you are just 50 votes short of victory. Your race was fiercely competitive and you suspect fraud in the results. You requested a recount already, it came out with the same results. If there is fraud, it must be in the mail-in ballots. What do you do?
Contesting an election is costly and time consuming so a candidate needs all the information possible to determine if he or she should proceed. One of the first things a candidate will want to see are the mail in ballots and applications. (For reasoning behind this: The Fort Worth Way) This sounds like a reasonable request, right? Not so fast. There are a few pieces of the Election Code blocking the way.
If their election was in the March Primary, they won’t be able to see the applications until well beyond the deadline to contest their race. Why?
HB 666, passed in 2013, streamlined the vote-by-mail process and allowed for annual applications. The voter can check a box in January, requesting an annual application, and receive a ballot for every election that year. This may seem helpful to voters, but it is a hindrance to transparency.
The Election Code specifies that applications cannot be seen until after the last election for which a ballot has been requested, meaning November. Keep in mind that the names and addresses of all those who voted by mail, as well as the ballot envelopes, are already available to the public. There is no legitimate reason to hide the applications.
The scenario for a May election municipal candidate is even more problematic. The Elections administrator is required to retain the applications and ballot envelopes for municipal elections for only six months. That means the ballot envelopes could potentially be destroyed before the candidate can even see the applications! How can they know the ballot envelope signatures are valid if they can’t compare them to the applications?
The Election Code dictates a very detailed application for official use. However, for convenience it also states that all that is really required from the voter is their name, address, signature, and reason for voting by mail. This has given rise to pre-filled tear-off applications attached to campaign mailers. All the voter has to do is sign and drop the card in the mail.
Those handy pre-filled applications take advantage of a hole in the Election Code. To save space, they leave off the section for an assistant’s and/or witness’s information and signature. However, an assistant or witness is still guilty of a misdemeanor if they don’t put their information on the form. (Keep in mind, the simple act of putting the card in the mail for someone is considered assistance.) At best, they leave an innocent friend or neighbor unknowingly committing a crime, at worst they make an illegal harvester’s job a lot easier.
Also, when a voter fills out the name and address themselves, it is much easier to prove validity. When those portions are typed in, it is impossible to look for patterns of matching handwriting, the red flag that signals illegal harvesting.
The Election Code must be fixed through legislation. A standard form is required for voter registration so it should be required for applications as well. No more pre-filled abbreviated forms. Every application and ballot envelope must have a spot for the assistant’s name, address, signature, and relationship with the voter.
Witnessing on an application or ballot should be eliminated. Even election officials and ballot board members do not understand the difference between witnesses and assistants. The law should then allow for someone to assist a voter only once per election, as it currently states for witnesses. (The same exceptions for immediate family would still apply. Ex: Someone may assist both parents.)
Most importantly, ALL applications and ballot envelopes MUST be available through open records requests immediately after each election. There should be no delays and no costs to view these documents. These crucial records should also be retained for at least three years to match the felony statute of limitations.