The US elections were easier than before, when most people cast their votes at the polls and their choices were automatically calculated by machine.
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mail-order voting has increased, posing challenges to the workforce, technical and legal across thousands of electoral jurisdictions, each with their own procedures and rules.
If the November 3 elections between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden are close, many expect legal battles that, as in 2000, could go to the Supreme Court.
Polls show that far more Democrats are likely to vote than Republicans by mail, and Trump’s Republican Party has unleashed dozens of legal battles aimed at curbing mail voting.
In the recent elections, about one percent of ballots were mailed out, and this number is expected to increase with the increase in votes in the mail.
May mean hundreds of thousands of votes contested. The 2000 election was decided by a difference of 537 votes in Florida.
What is the overall voting picture?
In 2016, about 139 million Americans voted, 33 million of them by mail.
This year, researchers expect participation to exceed 150 million, and perhaps half of it by mail.
How to vote by mail?
Nine states and Washington, DC, automatically mail ballot papers to all voters.
In other states, voters had to ask for it. In the past this was restricted to “absentee” voters, but this year many states – but not all – have made it possible for anyone to get an absentee vote or mail.
Some states, including California and Nevada, have established a public vote by mail this year.
In some cases, inaccurate or outdated voter lists have resulted in ballots being mailed to the wrong address, or to people who have perished, raising concerns that these ballot papers could be used fraudulently.
Every country has its own rules. Most of them require the voter to fill out the ballot, place it in a return envelope, sign the outer envelope and re-vote by mail, or drop it in the designated drop-boxes.
But some states have a privacy envelope, in which the ballot goes first, before it is placed in the envelope.
Some states require voters to also have witnesses to sign the envelope and provide their contacts. In Alabama, which has some of the most restrictive voting laws, a voter needs two witnesses to sign.
When are cards calculated?
Personal votes are scheduled automatically, and in most cases are ready to be announced within hours or even minutes of polling close. But mailed ballots involve a tedious process and every state has its own rules again.
Some states only count mail-in ballots that arrive by Election Day – others accept them up to 10 days later if they are postmarked by Election Day.
Because of the burden on the postal service, some states have extended the ballot approval time.
The process of verifying signatures, opening envelopes, deleting ballot papers and counting them varies from country to country.
In Colorado, for example, ballots open upon receipt. The count – processed by the machine – begins 15 days before the election, but the data cannot be revealed until 7 PM Election Day.
One of the bottlenecks is the Postal Service, which has seen cuts that some see as Republican attempts to disrupt mail voting.
On the one hand, according to its most recent annual report, the Postal Service delivers around 471 million pieces of mail per day – so it should be reasonably able to handle the extra load.
Due to the volume of mailed votes, it all takes days to count.
Another bottleneck is signature verification. In some states this is an automatic process, but in others it is done manually, by survey workers who visually match the signatures with what the case has on file.
Many people’s signatures change over time, and some have more than one way to sign. Younger people growing up digitally, especially first-time voters, may not have a regular signature, or they may not have a signature on the file.
For rejected ballots, some states try to track down the voter and get him to confirm his signature, or “process” the ballot. But that takes time.
After months of court battles, a North Carolina appeals court in October ruled that voters be given a chance to have their ballot papers fixed.
Another obstacle – should the ballot be canceled if the voter does not use privacy cover?
In Pennsylvania, following a Republican lawsuit, a court ruled that “bare ballots,” which could number in the tens of thousands, could not be counted. But other countries accept them.
Here come the lawyers
In conflicting states, the two sides have accelerated their legal teams. Trump has already said that he does not trust the mailed ballots that counters receive after Election Day.
The Stanford-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Health Election Project counted more than 300 lawsuits in 44 states.
As in Florida in 2000, a close fight will generate multiple calls for a recount, with the two sides wrangling over the validity of each ballot. Is the postal stamp correct? Is the signature correct? Is the title exactly correct? Can it be cured legally? Is it too late?