The presidential elections are 21 days away, and here's what America is dealing with: a raging pandemic, a crisis in the United States Postal Service, the threat of foreign interference, and lots of misinformation, including from the President's Twitter account.
All of this begs a serious question: how can you make sure your vote counts in 2020?
Voting in the middle of a pandemic would always look different. For those who choose to vote in person, voters and poll workers will likely need to maintain social distance and wear masks. Many people may forego personal voting altogether. The number of Americans voting by mail is expected to double from 2016.
And then came the controversy at the United States Postal Service. A number of cost-cutting measures sparked mail delivery delays that critics feared could undermine the USPS's ability to sort and deliver ballots in a timely manner to be counted, potentially disenfranchising millions of voters. The USPS has since suspended these changes, and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy reassured lawmakers in August that the November election would be his "number one priority."
But the main season in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic did not go exactly smoothly. The Washington Post reported that around half a million postal ballots were rejected in the primaries, a combination of late delivery and election errors.
All of this undermines confidence in the exercise of democracy in November – and possibly in the election results themselves.
The United States' electoral system has had significant problems before and after the pandemic unless there is reform. There should be. However, this will not happen in time for November 3rd. Voting is already taking place in many states.
Here's a guide on how voters can better navigate the elections while improving the voting system for everyone. The biggest takeaway: don't wait.
"If you want to simplify it in the simplest way, there are two words: plan early," said David Becker, CEO and founder of the Center for Innovation and Election Research. "That's it, that's all."
Make a plan and do it early
Much has been said about creating a "voting plan".
"Now make a plan for how you will get involved and vote," said former President Barack Obama during his address at the Democratic National Convention. "Do it as early as you can and tell your family and friends how they can vote too."
This plan has a guiding principle, and you might have guessed it: do anything – anything, anything, anything – early.
The very first step is the most critical: make sure you can vote. Find out if you are registered. Even if you think it is you, you can still check that your information is up to date. Do so now on your state or local election website which you can look up here.
Seriously, do it now. Some registration deadlines have already passed, others are coming soon, and this could be your last chance.
(Note: Below are some cards that contain voting rules. The rules are subject to change. The best way to find information and voting deadlines is with your state or local electoral authority, which can also be found here.)
Now that you are hanging out on your area's election officials website, it is probably worth checking out all of the voting deadlines and requirements. This can help you decide how you can and want to vote: by mail or in person.
Should I vote by email? If you can and want to, do it early.
Many more states will offer voters the opportunity to send in their ballots this year. Some states send ballot papers to every registered voter – either because they have been doing this for a long time or because they have adopted these guidelines due to Covid-19. A total of nine states (plus Washington, DC) send ballots to all eligible voters: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington.
About 35 other states will allow voters to send in postal ballot papers without giving a reason, or accept Covid-19 as an apology. Some of these states, like Delaware, all send absentee ballots. In other cases, you will need to request a ballot directly from your local polling station. There are still a handful of states that require you to provide a specific reason for being absent: Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.
Tim Ryan Williams / Vox
You might be thinking, okay, I can email my vote, but should I? What about all that stuff about the mail? And all these ballots are rejected?
Bottom line: if you want to rely on email when voting, do everything early. This means that if you need to request one, you need to get your voting slip right away. And when you get it, fill it out and send it back asap.
"Despite all the talk and the Hullabaloo over the mail, your ballot should get there as long as you have enough time," said Trey Hood, director of the poll research center at the University of Georgia School of Public & International Affairs, told me.
This Hullabaloo has mostly to do with new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump ally and donor who was appointed in June. Since arriving, the USPS has put cost-cutting measures in place that have resulted in significant delays in the mail. As Adam Clark Estes of Recode reported, these measures included a major reorganization of the agency's staff, limiting overtime, reducing the number of journeys mail carts could make per day, and shutting down sorting machines that could handle millions of parts are sorted flatpost per hour, including ballot papers.
DeJoy distanced himself from some changes, saying that some took place before his arrival but defended others as needed to keep the postal service sustainable over the long term. The postal service has grappled with serious financial problems for years, and the coronavirus pandemic made them worse, disrupting the mail and exhausting the workforce when employees fell sick or had to take vacation.
The pandemic and DeJoy's moves led to legitimate concerns about the USPS's ability to deliver an additional million postal ballots in November. The USPS had also warned 46 states and Washington, DC that it could not guarantee that all ballots would be delivered in time for the count.
The USPS is able to handle mail fluctuations, and even if millions of Americans vote by mail this year, the volume will likely still be less than what the postal service sees during the vacation. However, the coronavirus crisis and operational changes at the USPS raised questions from Democrats and electoral groups who feared DeJoy was trying to sabotage the agency.
In response to that pressure, DeJoy said he had suspended all operational changes until after the election "so as not to avoid even the appearance of an impact on election mail." He also assured the legislature that he would prioritize the mail-in vote, but would not reverse any changes (e.g. restarting sorting machines).
But when it comes to you, the voter, just focus on doing it early. Even if the USPS worked fine, if you wait until the deadline to request a ballot or email for your vote, you are likely to be late.
Experts said the best course of action is to send your ballot back immediately. However, if you insist on hesitation, be sure to give yourself at least a full week before the deadline. And review the deadline carefully; Some states require ballots to be received before or by election day, while others require postmarked before or by that date. And some states with postmarking rules have tight deadlines for receipt near election day.
"Having (voters) the ability to vote earlier in the system increases the likelihood that it will get there on time and be properly processed," said Quentin Palfrey, chairman of the Voter Protection Corps. "And just like any other important piece of mail, it's better if you put it in the mail early. That's the system as a whole."
However, if you're really concerned about the USPS, it doesn't always mean you have to literally send it back just because you received a postal ballot. Voters can submit ballot papers to their local electoral board. Many states and localities offer secure dropboxes, and voters can often cast ballots at polling stations. (At the risk of sounding like a broken record: To find out what options are available to you, check with your local electoral board.)
Tim Ryan Williams / Vox
Nevertheless, many postal ballots are rejected every year, not just in 2020. This is not what President Trump would have you believe for election fraud. That's pretty rare, even with mail-in polls. Sometimes it's because ballots arrive too late to be counted. In other cases, voters only make innocent mistakes, e.g. For example, forgetting to sign your ballot or accidentally damaging it.
"We knew a number of postal ballot papers would be rejected because they were late, or lacked a signature, or if the person didn't check a box on the envelope for a variety of seemingly minor technical matters," said David C. Kimball. a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis told me.
"If only 5 percent of the people are absent, that's a small, manageable amount," he said. "But if you increase the out-of-office voting so that now maybe half or more people are voting in absentia, we're now talking about a larger number of voters who may actually be disenfranchised."
This is a real problem, so voters need to read the instructions carefully. If you are confused about any step in the process, give your local election office a call. Doing everything early doesn't mean this should be a rush job. Becker said mail-in polls are a great option. “However, voters must also read the ballot carefully to return it in time and to ensure that they do not make mistakes filling out the ballot. And some voters may not be comfortable with it. "
In many states or counties, you can now track your ballot, much like tracking an Amazon or UPS package. How much information your state gives you varies (which means – yes, you know the drill check!), But some can notify you when your ballot is printed and sent to you. You can also track the return journey: when the election officials receive it and sometimes whether your ballot was counted or rejected. And if it's rejected, some states have ways to fix it so your vote can be counted.
"That's another reason to get your absentee ballots in early," said Hood of the University of Georgia, "because when there's a problem, most states have a so-called" healing process "that you can use to fix it – like me forgot it. " Sign my security envelope or my postal vote. There is a way to fix that. "
Experts also stressed that if something goes wrong, you should call your local electoral board at every stage of the process. That's what they're there for. If you request a ballot and don't get one, give us a call. If you are confused about a deadline or rule, give it a call. Problems will arise, but they will be much easier to resolve now by mid-October than, say, on November 2nd.
Postal voting checklist:
Check your state's rules. If you can vote by email, check the deadlines and make sure they work for you.
If your state doesn't automatically send you a ballot or ballot request, request a ballot as soon as possible.
If possible, log in to keep track of your voting slip.
Once you have received your voting slip, read the instructions. Call your local polling officer if you have any questions. Fill out your voting slip carefully. You may need a witness in several states.
Decide how you want to return it to the polling officers. If you are mailing it, do it ASAP. If you plan to drop it off, check to see what locations may be available in your state and do so as soon as possible.
If you apply for a ballot and don't get one, call your local election officials.
If you plan to vote by mail but are concerned that you will not meet the deadline, call your election officials and see what other options you have.
What about personal voting?
A personal vote is still possible on election day. The decision about a personal vote in the pandemic is ultimately a personal one. There are always risks, but election officials across the country are taking steps to make the in-person voting as safe as possible.
Polling stations across the country are likely to use social distancing measures and will likely require personal protective equipment for election workers. Expect plenty of disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and even extra pens. Some sports teams have offered their local arenas to give voters plenty of space. Ideally, the primaries gave local officials a test run on how to work safely, safely, and quickly.
However, if you plan to vote in person, the same rule applies: do it early. About 40 states offer some form of early personal consultation (see an updated mobile-friendly map). The dates and rules vary by state and county. So check them out. Some states have changed their rules – for example, Texas has extended its early voting by six days due to Covid-19 – and polling stations change from year to year. Check this out now.
"As soon as you have decided which method you want to vote on, the next step is to do everything early," said Becker. “Almost all states have some form of early voting. If you decide to vote in person, vote early. "
Decide if you will feel comfortable voting in person. Contact your electoral officer for more information on security protocols. This will also vary from state to state, from county to county.
Check your polling station.
You may want to vote early. However, don't expect early results.
Just because you vote early doesn't mean election officials will return the favor. The Americans will not find out who won on election night. Probably not the morning after the election either.
"That's just not a realistic expectation this year, and maybe not anymore, as more and more people vote in absentia," said Kimball of the University of Missouri in St. Louis. While this is less of a problem in some states in the west that have robust mail-in voting systems, many states are doing it for the first time and will never have seen this volume of mail-in voting.
Counting postal ballot papers is a much more labor intensive process. “Processing a postal vote or postal vote literally just takes longer. Even take it out of the envelope, separate, unfold. I mean, it all just takes time, ”Hood said.
But not getting results right away isn't a bad thing – on the contrary.
As Myrna Perez, director of the Voting Rights and Election Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said there could be very good reasons for the slowdown. We want states to give voters the opportunity to vote by post until the last minute. We want to be able to correct malfunctions and technical errors and give voters the opportunity to correct a mail-in vote if it has been rejected. We would like to be able to carry out audits, for example – checking the number of votes with paper votes – if necessary. All of this takes time.
Add to this the unprecedented changes brought about by the pandemic: States are revising their systems to include postal ballot papers. You need to recruit and train election workers. You need to buy personal protective equipment.
"There are more changes in this election cycle, with more concerns about the pandemic and more enthusiasm for votes that all come together at the same time, more than ever," said Becker of the Center for Innovation & Election Research. "So we have more voters, fewer election workers, fewer polling stations and overstrained resources."
However, the federal government could do more to help: provide resources to states and municipalities to safely and effectively administer elections, and to communicate changes to electoral rules to their voters.
The HEROES ACT, the House Democrats' $ 3 trillion stimulus package, included $ 3.6 billion for state and local election preparation and planning. But talks on this bill have stalled in the Senate, and it stays there.
"There is no amount of money wasted on good public education," said Perez. “Even if it was at the last minute. There is so much interference and change in our elections. If people get good information about who, what, when, where, why and how is voting, the money is well spent. "
Early voting is good for you – and for democracy
Votes, with or without a pandemic, have always had problems in the United States. There are long queues at polling stations. Voting machines fail.
We expect these things to happen. And the pandemic will make it worse. States that have never conducted a general vote by email will do so for the first time. A shortage of poll workers could mean fewer polling stations and longer lines. The voting process can take longer due to social distancing and disinfection.
So basically not all Americans can vote at the last minute if we want our democracy to work. "If you want to vote by email, the sooner you get it, the chances are that the processing will be on time." If you vote in person, and if you vote early when there's a big mistake, you can go back, ”said Perez.
Some people may not have made up their minds who to vote for, and they may not do so until election day. But once you've made up your mind – and if you know that Joe Biden or Donald Trump (or the Congressional candidates on the ballot!) Couldn't do anything to influence you differently – please vote early if you can.
This is not just meant to guarantee that your vote counts. It is also designed to help all of your fellow Americans who are busy, have inflexible hours, or make late decisions, are wafflers and swing voters who have the right to vote when they are sure of their choice. It would help all of those procrastinators out there (you know who you are) too.
Because voting early, Perez said, has a smoothing effect – not just for you, but for everyone else. For example, if the voting is spread over days and everyone goes at different times, there won't be as many ballots or crowds. When there is interference, fewer people are affected, which makes correction easier.
It also helps protect yourself from other voting issues such as misinformation or even outside interference. As Becker pointed out, these online propaganda efforts tend to have maximum impact the closer they get to election day – with less time to review or debunk facts and the window of opportunity narrowing enough to keep someone from voting won't have another chance.
If you've planned and voted early, you'll be less prone to Russian trolls. And if we all vote early, we are all less vulnerable.
Think of it a bit like wearing masks, but for democracy. Planning and voting early gives you more confidence that your vote counts, and the more people do, the more likely other voters will participate in a much more efficient and fairer election for all – and poll workers and electoral officials will manage it. And everyone can be a little more certain that their vote counts.
"Acting early not only maximizes the chance that your ballot will be processed and counted successfully, it also maximizes the chance that each ballot will be successfully processed and counted by allowing election officials to spread the work over a longer period of time." Said Becker. "It's very patriotic to do this early."
Correction, August 27th: An earlier version of the email voting card incorrectly characterized the New Jersey and Montana rules. New Jersey sends ballots to all registered voters; In Montana, the districts can decide whether postal ballot papers should be sent.
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