Even before corona, our election system had plenty of problems — remember those hanging chads? But the idea that this November tens of millions of Americans will be voting by mail spells big trouble. The best-case scenario is it will take a few days to count the ballots. What will be going on during that time is one of the things that concerns me.

Will the campaigns sit back passively and await the results or will Chicago-style shenanigans become widespread? Consider the old saying: "Opportunity is the mother of all trouble." Our traditional voting process used to be a quick affair, polls open in the early morning and by midnight we all knew the results. This election will be very different. The counting will go on for days or weeks. So will the opportunities.

A look at the recent results from New York City are illustrative: The primary was June 23. A month later, some congressional races were still undecided. On July 17, two candidates filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Board of Elections of creating an “election snafu.” The Washington Post went a step further and called the election a “train wreck.”

The official vote tally was finally released Aug. 5. A six-week delay is bad enough, but there was another problem: Over 84,000 mail-in ballots were disqualified. The reasons included that they arrived late (ballots received after June 25 were not counted), lacked a postmark or failed to include a voter’s signature. In total, more than 20% of the mail-in votes were tossed! Regarding this debacle, The New York Post wrote, “The high invalidation rate provides more proof that election officials and the Postal Service were woefully underprepared to handle and process the avalanche of mail-in ballots.”

In the best of times, putting our elections in the hands of the United States Postal Service is not acceptable. But right now, the USPS is in disarray. Allegations include first class mail being delayed while workers concentrate on getting the flood of COVID-inspired online shopping packages delivered on time. Recently, in Maine, 80,000 pieces of mail were left sitting at the Portland distribution center. Exactly why is under investigation, but it sounds like workers are tired of being asked to do more with less. And this before millions of Americans even post their ballots!

It seems likely that, in the largest cities, where the vast majority of Democratic voters live, there will be chaos. And chaos in big cities in swing states means big trouble. Consider the following scenarios: Joe Biden needs Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes to win. In 2016, Trump won the state by a mere 40,000 votes, even though Hillary Clinton carried Philadelphia by a staggering 476,000 votes!

Scenario #1: In 2020, one third of Philadelphia’s roughly 700,000 voters vote by mail and 20% of those ballots are tossed because of late delivery. That would result in about 40,000 fewer Democratic votes, certainly enough to ensure another Trump victory.

Scenario #2: Philadelphia’s Democratic party machine wants a bigger turnout in Philly to ensure a Biden victory. Unsolicited mail-in ballots are distributed far and wide. Stacks are left at nursing homes, colleges, assisted living complexes and apartment houses. In an effort to ensure no voters are “disenfranchised,” every returned ballot is counted. Amazingly, more people vote by mail than in person and the turnout is the largest ever. Biden wins Philly by 525,000 votes and takes Pennsylvania.

Neither scenario should be acceptable to Americans.

The second concern I have is outright fraud. In sports, “mailing it in” means the game is not legit. From the grandstands it might look like a proper contest, but down on the field players know the game is a fraud and the outcome was never in doubt. Voting in person, at a public polling place, lends legitimacy to the election. Mountains of ballots sitting in post offices and counting rooms is asking for trouble. For example, how will we know who filled out the ballots? I have a friend with dementia. She should not be voting. Will her ballot be among those cast and counted?

The common response to concerns like mine is often that Utah and Washington have done large-scale mail-in elections for years. That is true. But the AG for the state of Washington says it took them 10 years to perfect a system that works. We simply don’t have time to adopt the Washington process nationally.

There is a way to do mail-in voting right. If we conduct the presidential election following the Utah rules, that would be a step in the right direction. Why? Because Utah only mails ballots to active voters. If you haven’t voted in two of the last three elections, no soup for you. New voters can still get a ballot, but they must request one.

That is the same as the by-request absentee ballot process we use in Maine. The Utah process and the current Maine process are distinctly different from mass-mailing unsolicited ballots to all the names on a registration list. If we want a legit contest, we can’t be sending ballots to people who no longer live at the listed address or, in some cases, have been dead for years. Nor can we drop off stacks of blank ballots anywhere and expect an honest election.

Analyzing the Numbers – Epilogue

I finally heard, via email, from the Mills administration regarding the errors in its unemployment data and the impossibly low 6.6% “official” unemployment rate. The answer I got was, quite frankly, stunning. To summarize: The Department of Labor admits its unemployment data is flawed and the “official unemployment estimates … have not fully reflected the magnitude of the job loss that has occurred for two reasons.”

First, the official rate does not count 29,000 Mainers who lost their jobs and were unable to look for new jobs because they chose to obey the governor's stay-at-home order. Second, the official rate does not count 14,100 people who were "laid off" as unemployed. Instead, they classified these jobless folks as "employed, not at work." DOL now admits this classification was a mistake.

In closing, DOL says: "Adding these two groups, the unofficial unemployment rate in Maine would be 12.4%." I understand that there are different ways to report the unemployment rate. What I don’t understand, and find very troubling, is why DOL would report a 6.6% unemployment when it knows full well the real rate is twice that or more.

Randall Poulton is a columnist for The Republican Journal. He lives in Winterport.