Every Question You Have About About Mail-In Voting, Answered

Culture

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping how Americans approach the presidential election, including where people will fill out ballots. Election officials are expecting a “historic level” of mail-in voters this November as states make adjustments amid concerns about the transmission of the virus at polling places.

Rules and regulations for mail voting are different across the country, from obtaining a ballot (it’s more accessible in some places than others) to deadlines (though most are in October). And while some states have expanded access, others require a reason beyond COVID-19 to vote from home.

The process can be confusing. So we asked National Vote at Home Institute‘s CEO Amber McReynolds—dubbed the “leading lady of vote-by-mail“—to answer every question you might have about mail ballots.

ELLE: What are the biggest reasons to vote by mail?

Amber McReynolds: There’s a lot of reasons to vote by mail. Voters with disabilities or the elderly are often the first groups people think of, but students, parents, shift workers, and the military are other groups that benefit from vote by mail policies. Some of these groups are unable to get to the polls during voting hours—or wait in long lines at them—but there’s other reasons to vote by mail, like having more time to research the issues. Some ballots are multiple pages long because of referendums and local issues. Voters are more engaged with these “down-ballot” issues in a vote by mail system because they can take the time to research. They don’t feel pressured to speed through a voting booth.

Who is eligible to vote by mail?

AM: It all depends on where the voter lives. Some states automatically mail a ballot to all eligible voters, while other states require voters to both meet special criteria and request a mail ballot for each election. You can find more information about your state’s election rules, here.

How do I know if my state will allow me to vote by mail?

AM: Find out on www.canivote.org, which is run by the National Association of Secretaries of State. The other place to go to for information about your ballot is your local election official. We strongly encourage voters to contact their local elections office with questions about their ballot.

How and when should I request a ballot?

AM: It varies by states and jurisdiction. If you can, we encourage you to use an online portal through your state or county to make a request as soon as possible to make sure it’s processed and mailed to you on time. Yes, there are deadlines for each state and jurisdiction, but we strongly encourage voters to request a ballot as soon as possible.

I’m worried about about my ballot arriving in time.

AM: A good rule of thumb is to request your ballot by October 13 and return it in the mail by October 24. If you do that, it should be received by your local election office on time. These dates were suggested by former Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman, and give both the voter and the U.S. Postal Service adequate time to return a ballot.

Are there options if I miss my state’s deadline to vote by mail?

AM: Some states have robust early voting options, while others only have in-person voting on Election Day. Some states have implemented more early voting options like curbside voting or more early voting locations to help give voters more options.

What are the risks of voting by mail?

AM: While there aren’t any risks of voting by mail per se, there are things you should be aware of when requesting and filling out a mail ballot. Returning the ballot on time is the greatest “risk,” but can easily be avoided if you request and return your ballot early. You’ll want to make sure you filled out the ballot correctly, so be sure to read the ballot instructions very carefully and make sure you are providing a signature where indicated. That signature should match the one on file at the election office. If you think your signature has changed, contact your local board of elections or clerk to update it.

I’m concerned my vote won’t get counted.

AM: Voters should educate themselves about the mail ballot process and read instructions very carefully. Ballots can be rejected for mistakes or for arriving late. To decrease the chances of that, NVAHI has been working with jurisdictions to make sure instructions are clear and processes are fair and equitable. We’re also working with groups that contact voters to make sure voters know exactly what to expect when they get their ballot, including how to fill it out and how to return it on time.

The president has criticized mail-in voting. Should I be concerned?

AM: It’s a highly secure process trusted by voters and politicians alike. As long as you return the ballot in a timely manner and follow all of the instructions carefully, voting by mail is an incredibly convenient and seamless method of voting not only in the November election, but in all elections.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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