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2020 Election Dos And Don'ts


We asked for, and you sent in, lots of questions about voting. What's the best way to make sure a ballot is counted? Can someone else bring in your ballot? And does everything on a ballot need to be voted for? Well, besides the date - Nov. 3 - everything seems up in the air this year. So to help us cross our Ts and dot our Is on our voting to-do list, NPR's Pam Fessler and Miles Parks join us to explain.

Welcome, guys.



CORNISH: I want to start with a question from Betsy Alles of Frankfort, Mich.

BETSY ALLES: I received my absentee ballot but have changed my mind and would like to actually go to the polls. Will this create an issue?

CORNISH: So, Pam, before you answer this question, I should say we've received, actually, a lot of questions about this from people in Minnesota, Wisconsin, California and New York. What can you tell us?

FESSLER: Well, that's right. A lot of people are very concerned now about sending their ballots in the mail because they're worried about delays. So they're interested in whether or not they are able to do that. And so the good news is in that most states, you can take your absentee ballot to the polling place, and they'll void or cancel it and allow you to vote in person. Now, if you have lost your ballot, in that case, you might have to sign an affidavit that you haven't already voted. You also might have to cast what's called a provisional ballot until they can check and make sure that, in fact, you haven't already voted.

And it's even possible, Audie, that you can vote in person if you've already sent in your absentee ballot as long as they haven't opened the envelope yet and started processing it. And once that happens, you're out of luck.

CORNISH: All right. Next question is for Miles, and it's from a swing state. Molly Bukovec of Pennsylvania asks, is voting in person safer in terms of security of my ballot - essentially asking about the safest way to ensure how a ballot is counted. Miles?

PARKS: Yeah. So there's kind of two parts of this, right? There's - if she's talking about the safety in terms of the ballot being counted, not the safety around COVID, the safest way is in-person voting. We know that by-mail voting - there are a large number of ballots, when you look at the entire country, that end up not counting for a number of reasons, whether it's people forgetting a signature, whether it's somebody sending it in - they think they're on time, and it gets there a day or two after that deadline.

Pam actually did reporting on this around the primary. More than 500,000 absentee ballots during the primary across the country were sent in and then didn't end up counting. So if you're only thinking about the most likely way that your vote is going to count, in-person is probably the way because there are people there to basically guide you along the process and make sure that vote ends up counting.

CORNISH: Miles, I want to follow that up with another question. This one's from Josephine Chau from Germantown, Md. She's asking about the idea of helping someone out who needs help casting their vote.

JOSEPHINE CHAU: For various reasons, some people would like to bring their mail-in ballots directly to the ballot drop box instead of sending them through the mail. At the same time, there are people who cannot get to the ballot box - for example, those who are isolating themselves to protect from COVID. What are the rules governing how to help? I'd like to help my neighbors but not if it invalidates their vote.

CORNISH: All right. This has been controversial for a lot of reasons. Can you talk about whether it's OK to transport or pick up a ballot for another person?

PARKS: Yeah. And this is, like everything in voting, different everywhere. Some states basically say you have to be a family member to be able to transport somebody's absentee ballot. Some states say anyone can do it, but there's a cap on how many. In Colorado, for instance, you can't transport more than 10 absentee or mail ballots. So every state is a little different. I would say if you're planning on doing this for a family member or for somebody you know, make sure you go check that law because in the states where it's not allowed, it is a felony. It can be a felony if you do this where it's not allowed or you don't fill out the correct paperwork. So in most states, there's some way for you to do it. But just be really sure before you go down that road.

CORNISH: Is this different from what's being called ballot harvesting?

PARKS: Yeah. That's basically what Republicans call it. This is another thing in voting that's kind of become a little partisan. Republicans call it ballot harvesting when somebody wants to turn in a number of absentee ballots. Democrats call it community ballot collection. But what I would say is even election officials who are in favor of the process would say no one should be giving their mail ballot or absentee ballot to somebody they don't trust, regardless.

So if it's somebody in your, you know, local neighborhood political party who you really trust - you've been to their meetings, and they say they're going to do it, and it sounds convenient - you know, maybe you can think about doing that. But if it's just somebody who shows up at your door and says, hey; you have a mail ballot; I'll turn it in for you, probably don't hand over your ballot so easily.

CORNISH: Pam, I have a follow-up question on this, which also speaks to the idea of trust. It's from Eric Ortman from Walnut Creek, Calif., asking, do states have a way for voters to track if their vote was counted?

FESSLER: Yes. I mean, actually, this has been a great advance in recent years. Almost every state will allow you to track your mail-in ballot online like a package, like you might, you know, order something online. The envelopes - the ballot envelopes have this barcode on them that allows not only the postal service but also the elections office, you know, to keep tabs on where the ballot is. You know, has it been sent out? Has it been received? And a lot of states - you just go online. You enter your personal information and find out where the ballot is. And in some like mine, which is Maryland, they actually will send out an email or text alert and saying, hey; your ballot has arrived, which is, you know, really quite reassuring.

Then the other thing is that some states - you know, Miles was talking about these ballots that are rejected because of problems like they don't have signatures on them. About 20 of them will actually inform you and tell you if the ballot does have some kind of problem like that that needs to be fixed so it'll be counted. And that's really important because if, you know - if you don't fix it, you know, your vote will be lost. Again, not every state will do this. You can check with your local or state election office online and find out what their rules are.

CORNISH: A lot of people have these concerns about making sure their ballot is counted. Constance Gruner in Indianapolis asks, must we vote on every line item? And she gives the example, Judge so-and-so - yes or no? I don't know them and hate to vote either way when I don't have an opinion. Miles?

PARKS: Yeah. This is one of those pervasive election myths that has spanned decades, and it's not true. I mean, you can leave however many races open. If you don't understand a ballot question, you know, you don't have to vote. If you want, you can just vote on the presidency, or you can vote on as many or as few items on the ballot as you like. And your ballot will be counted as long as you have all those other things we've been talking about - signatures, you send in on time. But the actual races you vote on do not affect whether your ballot is counted or not.

CORNISH: All right. As host, I'm going to sneak in one for myself. What states or issues will you be keeping a close eye on on Nov. 3 - right? - Election Day? Miles?

PARKS: The biggest one for me is just lines. I mean, we've seen in polling over the last few weeks that more and more people, as a reaction to both President Trump's rhetoric around vote-by-mail and then also - you know, a lot of Democrats have fears because of the sort of messaging over the last couple of months about the U.S. Postal Service.

So many more people are saying they want to vote on Election Day. And that is really worrying election officials who have had to consolidate polling places in a lot of places and have had trouble, in some places, recruiting poll workers. So when you combine the fact that there's also going to be all this social distancing happening, lines could be a really big issue on Election Day. If people have the opportunity to vote early, many experts and officials say you should try to do it.


FESSLER: Yeah. Well, besides the absentee ballots and which ones end up being counted or which ones end up being rejected, I'm going to be interested on Election Day at the polling places - we've heard a lot of talk about poll-watchers, people who might come to monitor the polls. There's a formal system where people are certified and trained to go in, and they're not supposed to interfere with voters. But we don't know if there will be groups that come and stand outside the polling places and whether or not there will be any intimidation of voters. And that's something that I will definitely be keeping an eye out for.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Pam Fessler and Miles Parks.

Thanks for sharing your reporting.

PARKS: Thank you.

FESSLER: Thanks, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENT SONG, "MAGIC LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.