Mail-in ballots: the hanging chads of 2012?

Sun Nov 4, 2012 7:11am EST
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By Peter Henderson

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Sloppy signatures on mail-in ballots might prove to be the hanging chads of the 2012 election.

As Republicans and Democrats raise alarms about potential voter fraud and voter suppression, mail-in ballots have boomed as an uncontroversial form of convenient, inexpensive voting.

In the critical swing states of Ohio and Florida, more than a fifth of voters chose the mail-in option 2010. In Colorado, another battleground, the number was nearly two-thirds.

But there may be controversy to come. For a variety of reasons, mail-in ballots are much more likely to be rejected than conventional, in-person votes.

With the razor-close presidential election Tuesday between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney potentially riding on a few tens of thousands of votes in a handful of states, the election could be decided by election officials' judgments about mail-in ballot signatures.

"You would worry that in Florida, in particular, the new hanging chad becomes whether you count this absentee ballot or not based on whether the signature is right," said Charles Stewart III, co-director of the Voting Technology Project and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

The "hanging chad" made election history in 2000 when President George W. Bush won Florida, and in turn the presidency, by 537 votes after election officials debated which absentee ballots and punch ballots with hanging flaps to count.

"In the case of Florida, a lot of absentee ballots get rejected because of signature problems. That's open for mischief," said Stewart, noting that poll workers could favor one side or the other.   Continued...

A mail-in ballot for the 2012 Presidential Election is shown in its envelope in Palm Springs, California October 26, 2012. REUTERS/Sam Mircovich