How to Vote
In the upcoming presidential election, many of us will be reluctant to physically go to a polling place. Fortunately, at least 76% of Americans will be able to cast a ballot by mail. Unfortunately, in six states—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, New York and Connecticut—concern over exposure to SARS-CoV-2, by itself, is not adequate to obtain an absentee ballot. Residents of those states will need another excuse, such as military deployment or illness, to qualify. Otherwise, they will need to show up in person to cast a vote.7
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Explore This IssueSeptember 2020
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Residents of all other states (and Washington, D.C.) may cast an absentee ballot. That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t need to do their homework. Some of these states will automatically mail a ballot to every eligible voter, while others will mail eligible voters only an application for a ballot. The remainder of the states will do nothing unless you first reach out to them.8 There are multiple online resources you can use to ensure you are registered to vote and will receive an absentee ballot in the mail.9
Just receiving your ballot is not enough. In the 2016 election, of the 33.3 million ballots cast by mail, 65,000 were rejected.10 What can you do to make sure your mail-in vote counts?
A slip of paper stuffed into a film canister & then drawn randomly from a bowl decided the outcome of this election.
First, read the instructions. Failure to complete the ballot in full and failure to sign the ballot are two of the reasons your vote may be invalidated.
Second, act early. You may be wondering why you are reading about how to vote so early in the year. But that’s exactly the point: It isn’t too early. The Chicago adage about elections is to “vote early, vote often.” At least part of that advice is applicable here. Each state has its own rules about what makes a mail-in ballot valid. Some states require only that the ballot is postmarked by Election Day, but over half the states require the ballot be received by Election Day. A timely postmark is not enough.11
That is harder than it sounds. The U.S. Postal Service’s own statistics indicate that 20% of First Class mail fails to reach its destination after five days.12 The vast majority of mail will eventually be delivered successfully, but for a ballot, eventually may not be good enough. Mailing in your ballot early, weeks before Election Day, provides you with the greatest assurance your vote will be counted.
For those of you concerned about the security of voting by mail, don’t be. During the week before Christmas, the U.S. Postal Service will deliver 2.5 billion pieces of First-Class mail. It can handle your ballot. Also, mail-in ballot fraud is uncommon, difficult to commit without getting caught and almost entirely unlikely to affect the outcome of any given election. Because mail-in ballots automatically create a paper trail, these elections are exceptionally easy to audit, should questions arise.13
Oregon’s experience is telling. In 2000, Oregon became the first state in the Union to conduct a presidential election entirely with mail-in ballots. That year, 79% of all eligible voters cast a vote.14 Since then, Oregon has established vote-by-mail as the single form of voting for all elections in the state.
Regarding the potential for fraud, Phil Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state, notes, “I’ve heard the same amped-up conspiracy theories for 30 years. There’s never been any evidence of significant attempts, much less success.”15 He further notes that vote-by-mail has been wildly popular, because it gives voters the opportunity to research issues with ballot in hand. If you have ever found yourself rapidly reading through some initiative or referendum while standing at a voting booth, you can immediately appreciate the appeal of a more stately, less frenetic approach.