Mail-in and absentee voting during COVID-19
By NCL Executive Assistant Adrienne Archer
The National Consumers League (NCL) wants consumers to know that voting by mail or absentee ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic is safe. Due to conflicting information being shared by the media, and federal, state and local governments, it can be difficult to determine how best to vote. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a voter should always focus on keeping themselves and their family safe and healthy. Whether voting by mail-in or absentee ballot, it’s important to have a plan. However, due to the variety of challenges posed by the pandemic, it might be difficult to keep up with the changes or updates to a state’s voting guidelines. Voters should contact their local elections office.
Many states and the District of Columbia have made it easier to vote early by mail or by absentee ballot. In the past, voters needed a reason why they couldn’t vote in person. National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) has resources for on state laws governing voting across the U.S. To know exactly when to vote in your state, contact your local elections office. USA.gov also offers information on the time frames for early or absentee voting.
All states will offer a form of mail-in voting and some states will make it more accessible to vote than others. Some states are still crafting legislation to make it easier for people to vote by mail or absentee ballot. The New York state legislature passed three bills allowing voters to request an absentee ballot or mail-in ballot because of COVID-19 fears. One of the bills allows for absentee ballots to be postmarked as late as election day and still be counted.
Government officials have noted possible instances of voter fraud. Some states have voiced concerns that mail-in ballots can easily be stolen, altered, or forged. Voters worry that they will not receive their ballot in time to vote. Congress is worried that the increase in mail will overwhelm the United States Postal Service (USPS) and delay the delivery of ballots. To add to the problems, the U.S. Postmaster General has made budget cuts to the USPS, dismantled machines, collected mailboxes, and reduced mail services causing consumers to worry that the USPS will not be able to process the increase in mail. Disability advocates want to ensure that mail-in voting will not be more difficult for voters with disabilities to exercise their right to vote.
Voting by mail is a safe option: it increases the overall voter response in the election. Even with these challenges to voting, military members and older Americans have been always encouraged to vote absentee. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided recommendations for people to handle mail-in ballots safely when they are received. In response to consumer requests, the USPS has created a website to help voters ensure that they can receive and return their ballot safely. Also, voters should remember that the main goal of voting during this pandemic is to safely cast their votes.
Americans voting from abroad, or in the military should be aware of the following: potential delays with sending and receiving mail, possible embassy closures due to COVID-19, and ensuring that their personal address is updated with his or her state. Americans abroad should request a ballot immediately from the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s website and check with their local U.S. polling place for instructions on receiving and returning the ballot. Most states permit Americans abroad to request a ballot via email with the caveat that a completed ballot should be returned by well before the November 3rd deadline via postal mail. Under Federal law, ballots should be requested by overseas military voters by September 19th (at least 45 days before the election). The Military Postal Agency has a list of recommended mailing dates. After individuals have returned their ballot, they should be sure to contact their local elections office to ensure that their ballot was received or if they have any questions.
Voting by mail has always been a good way to ensure access to those with disabilities. The American Civil Liberties Union has guidelines to improve accessibility to persons with disabilities. They suggest voters with a disability should receive ballots electronically so they can vote from the safety of their homes. Voters could indicate their candidate on the ballot by using accessibility features on his or her device. Then the ballot should be printed and mailed to his or her local polling place. Some states require witnesses or notarization on the ballot envelope. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants to dispense with this requirement. Election poll workers should receive training on accessible voting options and how to respectfully interact with voters with a disability. Lastly, every state should raise awareness about accessible voting options.
In summary, to effectively vote by mail or absentee ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Consumers League suggests these steps:
- Create a plan for voting by mail or via absentee ballot.
- Check your local polling office to ensure that it has your correct mailing address and you are eligible to vote in the upcoming election.
- Request your absentee or mail-in ballot NOW, well before the deadline of October 3rd (45 days before the election) from your local polling office.
- If voting from abroad or in the military, allow for extra time to request and receive your ballot.
- If you have a disability, every state has in place accommodations so you may vote safely and effectively. If you have questions, please contact your local polling place early so they may be resolved.
- When you get your ballot, review the instructions for completing and returning it. If you have questions, contact your local polling office for guidance.
- Mail-in your ballot immediately, in advance of your state’s deadline, allowing for time for it to be reviewed and counted.
Above all, vote, vote, vote!