The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will likely push millions of Americans to cast their ballots by mail for the upcoming election, prompting many voters to wonder what they should expect and plan to do ahead of time.
While measures are being taken to keep people safe during elections amid the pandemic, there are some regulations voters will need to abide by in order to have their ballots counted if they’re planning to vote by mail.
Some advice from Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislators: plan ahead of time.
“In most states they’ll have voter’s choice,” Underhill said. “How do they want to do it? And I would offer for any voter who is thinking ahead, the best thing they can do is make their plan for how they’re going to vote and if that includes asking for an absentee ballot, do it early. And if it includes voting in-person; do it early.”
Underhill said Americans can expect for mail-in and absentee voting to be widespread and widely used, but some states will likely still require that residents show up at the polls on Election Day.
“Really in all states, I think what we’re looking at now is sort of a hybrid election,” Underhill said. “Where some people are voting absentee or by mail in advance, and other people are voting on election day, or voting during an early, in-person voting period.”
“Some of the states have made early voting a little bit easier than it was before,” Underhill said regarding the different methods states are making available to voters in response to the ongoing pandemic.
“Texas, for instance, added a whole week for early voting,” Underhill added. The idea was to allow voters extra time, as well as an opportunity to vote at the polls when there are not as many people present.
Some states require “excuse” for mail-in ballot
For those wishing to utilize absentee or mail-in voting, 16 states will require voters to provide an “excuse” for why they will not be able to vote in person on Election Day. This is no different from any other election, but the rules have been modified to cater to those wishing to not vote in person during the pandemic.
Twelve of the 16 states that require an excuse issued public statements or executive orders saying that a fear of contracting the novel coronavirus was a sufficient reason to vote absentee in the primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL).
The other 34 states and Washington, D.C. do not require an excuse from voters who wish to mail in their ballot.
A majority of states do not offer automatic mail-in voting. In fact, only five participate in this practice, and most recently, California, Nevada and Vermont have confirmed mailed ballots for the November election, but have not stated whether or not each state will make it a permanent practice.
Some states already vote fully by mail
Five states that conduct elections entirely by mail already, according to the NCSL:
While Underhill does not believe it would be too difficult for states that are not accustomed to mail-in ballots to transition amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she did say that the five states that already vote by mail have worked out the kinks after a few years of trial and error.
“They’ve spent some years figuring out what does it take to keep their voter rolls super clean,” Underhill said.
States like Colorado and Utah have a well-oiled machine when it comes to correcting mistakes and ensuring all voter information is up to date.
While Underhill said most of the country has been quick to create changes to voting methods to keep people safe during such a big election year, there is one issue that could delay results.
“There is one place where state policy might still be changing and that is on when you can process those absentee ballots that are coming in,” Underhill said. “And if you can’t start to open them until Election Day, it’s going to take a while to process them afterwards.”
When to send a mail-in ballot
While 16 states and Washington, D. C. will still count a vote if the ballot arrives after the fact, the time frame varies depending on the state.
For instance, Alaska will count a resident’s ballot 10 days after the due date if it was postmarked on or before Election Day, according to the the NCSL.
California will also accept ballots three days after the due date, so long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day.
Deadlines for states that allow late mail-in ballots:
-District of Columbia: Seven days after the election if postmarked on or before Election Day.
-Florida: Election Day by 7 p.m.
-Illinois: 14 days after the election if postmarked on or before Election Day.
-Iowa: Monday following the election if postmarked by the day before the election.
-Kansas: Three days after the election if postmarked before the close of polls on Election Day.
-Maryland: Postmarked on or before Election Day.
-Nevada: Details pending.
-New Jersey: 48 hours after polls close if postmarked on or before Election Day.
-New York: Seven days after the election for mailed ballots postmarked the day before Election Day.
-North Carolina: Three days after the election if postmarked on or before Election Day.
-North Dakota: The day before the election. Before the canvass if postmarked the day before the election.
-Ohio: 10 days after the election if postmarked by the day before Election Day.
-Texas: The day after the election by 5 p.m. if postmarked on or before Election Day.
-Utah: Seven to 14 days after the election by the county canvass date if postmarked the day before the election.
-Virginia: Three days after the election by noon if postmarked on or before Election Day.
-Washington: Postmarked on or before Election Day.
-West Virginia: Five days after the election if postmarked on or before Election Day.
States that do not allow late mail-in ballots:
How to find out whether you can vote by mail
As for the states that are attempting to adopt the mail-in method ahead of the November election, potential issues that they could face include confusion among voters regarding what an absentee/mail-in ballot even looks like or whether or not a voter needs to apply online or by mail.
That’s where local election officials come in handy.
Underhill strongly encouraged voters to check with their local election officials about what protocol should be followed or whether or not absentee/mail voting will be an option.
“The states are also doing an amazing amount of stuff to make sure polling places will be healthy,” Underhill stressed. “It will be places where you can go with the proper social distancing. There’s been a huge amount of action on the in-person voting that doesn’t get the press that the mail or absentee voting is getting.”
But, if people are unsure of where to find their state election information, Underhill suggested checking out the U.S. Vote Foundation, which houses a directory of local election official contacts.The NCSL also has a website with updates voting policies for each state, as well as a COVID-19 guide for voters.
Avoid common mail-in voting mistakes
Despite the varying deadlines, which may make voting during a pandemic seem even more confusing, one thing is absolutely clear: If you plan to vote by mail, do it early.
The USPS announced in July that deliveries could be delayed by one day or more due to cost-cutting measures taken by the newly appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
The measures eliminate overtime for hundreds of thousands of postal workers and USPS leaders say employees must adopt a "different mindset” to ensure the Postal Service’s survival during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Late trips will no longer be authorized and if postal distribution centers are running late, "they will keep the mail for the next day," Postal Service leaders said in a document obtained by The Associated Press.
“One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that — temporarily — we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks,'' another document said.
The agency said voters should be advised to request ballots at the earliest point allowable but no later than 15 days prior to Nov. 3.
"Voters must use First-Class Mail or an expedited level of service to return their completed ballots,“ USPS said. "Customers who opt to vote through the U.S. Mail must understand their local jurisdiction’s requirements for timely submission of absentee ballots, including postmarking requirements."
President Donald Trump has claimed the mail ballots would lead to fraud and compromise the integrity of the election. The consensus among experts is that all forms of voter fraud are rare.
Underhill remains confident when it comes to the integrity of the upcoming elections, even though some snags in the process are bound to happen, she said.
“I would say states have learned a lot in the last four months and states have proven that they can move faster than anybody might have guessed in the past,” Underhill said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re going to get through without some hiccups because we certainly saw plenty of hiccups in the primaries and there’s never been an election that doesn’t have a hiccup in one location or another.”
And while 2020 has been an uncertain year, Underhill stressed the importance of voting.
“As voters, remember, voting matters. There’s consequences. Voting leads to who gets elected, who makes the policy for you. So I think the message has got to be, get out there and make your voice heard and that’s regardless of what method you use for casting your ballot,” Underhill said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.