How are you planning to vote this year? At a polling place or by mail?
In the 2016 presidential election, 33 million people voted by mail. But, as we consider how to cast ballots amidst COVID-19, that number could increase to 80 million in the upcoming election. That’s brought renewed scrutiny on everything from the postal service’s capacity to get votes to boards of election to the various laws across the country to the process itself.
But it’s not an option we can avoid.
“When there are genuine health risks to gathering in person at a polling place, we have to provide the mail-in option to anyone who wants it,” said Steve Huefner, the deputy director of the election law program in Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law. “And then we need to do all we can to make sure that the mail-in option is an effective one for people.”
That means a consistent, simple process with clear rules, according to Huefner, to ensure all these votes are counted. Unfortunately, the primary season earlier this year exposed that the mail-in voting process didn’t always meet these standards.
Mail your vote, and cross your fingers?
In the 2016 general election, 318,728 mail-in ballots were rejected. In the primaries earlier this year, more than 550,000 were rejected across the country, including more than 21,000 in Ohio’s April primary.
Ballots are rejected for a number of reasons, including no signature, a signature that doesn’t match one on file or late mail delivery. Sometimes, mail-in ballots get lost in the mail.
“When you go to the polls on Election Day, you walk out of your polling place knowing your vote is in the mix,” Huefner said. “When you mail in a ballot, or drop it off at a drop box, there is some chance at some point your vote’s not going to get included.”
States are trying, they really are.
Prior to this year, and even now, many states had different rules for mail-in voting, and some made the process difficult. Voters needed to request a ballot, have a witness, cite a health reason, have signatures and birth dates verified.
For November, most states are trying to make the process easier. Nine states and Washington, D.C., are simply mailing ballots to every registered voter. Others, such as Ohio, are mailing absentee ballot request forms to all voters.
Many states that required a health reason for mail-in voting have either done away with that reason or are allowing coronavirus concerns to be included.
Voting by mail has drawbacks.
Outside of COVID-19 concerns, mail-in voting does present a few disadvantages.
“If something happens at the 11th hour that changes what you think about a candidate, but you voted two weeks ahead of time, you’re stuck,” Huefner said. “We sort of think about elections happening in a given moment of time, with everybody making a decision based on what is commonly known information. But with mail-in voting or early voting, we no longer have people voting on the same information.”
That also changes campaigning because politicians need to move up their timetables for ads or events by two or three weeks.
Also, because an absentee voter is not alone in a polling booth when casting a vote, there is the chance voters can be influenced by a spouse or family member.
“You’re supposed to swear or affirm on the authentication envelope you have voted without coercion or pressure but that’s not easy to enforce,” Huefner said.
And it has advantages.
For starters, it’s convenient. You simply fill out your ballot and drop it in the mail or a drop box by the correct date. And, you have more time to consider your choices.
“Many voters show up at a voting place on Election Day and start working through the ballot and discover there are a bunch of things there they didn’t even really think about,” Huefner said. “They haven’t looked at a sample ballot; they just know we’re voting for governor or president, and they also know there are a couple of legislative races.
“Whereas if you’re voting a mail-in ballot, you can think about it over your coffee table, in your study, at the kitchen table. That can be helpful.”
So, if you plan to vote by mail, or absentee ballot, do everything in your power to get it done correctly.
- Review your Secretary of State’s website for all deadlines. Here’s Ohio’s.
- Carefully read the ballot and instructions; fill it out; and sign it correctly.
And make sure it gets mailed or postmarked by the correct day. In Ohio, mail-in ballots need to be mailed by Nov. 2 or dropped off at the County Board of Elections by 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3.