Policy Decisions on Voting Outside Polling Places
We used to go to movie theaters for entertainment. Now we stream movies online. We used to visit the post office or bank in person. Now we send emails and do banking tasks on our phones.
When given a choice between going out and staying in, people are opting for the comfort of their own homes.
More voters are choosing to stay home too. Not that they won’t vote—instead, they’ll vote outside a polling place by casting an absentee (or mail) ballot.
Instances of voting by mail or absentee ballot are on the rise. Some states, such as Colorado, have implemented all-mail voting. Others have adopted no-excuse absentee voting, which is when any voter can request a mail ballot. Michigan and Pennsylvania recently made the switch—although the two states took different routes to get there. In 2018, Michigan Ballot Proposal 3 was approved by voters and established no-excuse absentee voting. In 2019, Pennsylvania enacted no-excuse absentee voting as part of a bipartisan effort to update its election system.
Pros and Cons
The debate about whether to permit more absentee/mail ballot voting is a worthy one. Advocates tout efficiency, voter convenience, potentially increased turnout, and the fact that it’s harder and harder to get poll workers to run traditional polling places.
Opponents point to the upfront cost of change (even if there are long-term savings), concerns about whether ballots outside the control of election officials can be kept safe and potentially slower election results.
Much could be said on all those points, but with two-thirds of the states either allowing all voters to vote absentee (or sending ballots to all voters), the trend is clear.
For states where absentee voting is rising, the policy debate moves from, “Should we make the move?” to, “How can we best implement the change?” In other words, once legislators make the big decision, many smaller choices remain.
Let’s take a look at some of those policy choices.
Do you want to permit no-excuse absentee voting, or do you want to encourage it?
It’s one thing to permit no-excuse absentee voting; it’s another to encourage it. Local election officials may encourage it to reduce pressures on Election Day; political campaigns may see more pre-Election Day voting as less work for them to get out the vote on Election Day; and voters may like having an “election period” to vote their ballot, rather than just Election Day.
States that want to encourage more absentee voting can do so in a variety of ways. First, a state can provide an online portal for registered voters to request an absentee ballot, on the theory that if asking for a ballot is easier, more voters will go that route. At least 10 states and Washington, D.C., have an online portal that permits voters to request an absentee/mailed ballot: Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.
Second, lawmakers can authorize creating a permanent absentee list—known to some as a single sign-on option. With a permanent list, a voter tells election officials just once that they want an absentee ballot, and as long as they keep voting, they’ll keep getting ballots sent. In 2019, New Jersey created a permanent absentee list, and Alabama did so for voters with permanent disabilities.
Third, states can either go all-mail or allow counties the option of going all-mail. In 2019, Hawaii joined Colorado, Oregon and Washington in sending ballots to all voters, and California and Utah leave it up to counties to decide—with most counties opting in for all-mail.
When can ballots be processed?
Voted absentee (or mail) ballots start flowing in well before Election Day. Each one needs to have the signature on the envelope verified (the absentee voting equivalent of a voter ID requirement), the outer envelope removed, the ballot separated from the secrecy sleeve and the crease flattened—all before running the ballot through a scanner.
In many states, those processing steps can be done as the ballots arrive—everything up to, but not including, pushing the “tabulate” button. Results can then be tabulated minutes after the polls close. Colorado’s law is explicit that processing can begin 15 days prior to Election Day but that “no information concerning the count shall be released by the election officials or watchers until after 7 p.m. on election day.”
In other states, the law stipulates that processing can’t start until Election Day arrives, or maybe even until the polls close. That means signature verification and envelope-opening are added to the usual Election Day jobs. As more people use absentee ballots, results reporting can slow down.
What happens if a ballot is returned and there’s a problem with the signature?
Stuff happens: Spouses may accidentally put their ballots in each other’s envelopes. A voter forgets to sign the outside envelope. A signature doesn’t look similar enough to those on file for trained bipartisan reviewers to call it a match.
The response to a signature problem depends on the state. In some states, the ballots (still in their envelopes) are set aside as uncountable. In other states, the voters are notified that there’s a problem and are given a chance to fix it. This works best when voters have provided a phone number or email address, but even a mailed notice saying “please contact us so we can count your ballot” will improve the count rate. In 2019, for example, Kansas began requiring that voters have the opportunity to make sure their vote counts.
Problems on the ballot, however, can't be fixed. If the voter puts a check mark by the candidate, rather than fills in the oval, the vote doesn't count. This would be caught in a polling place when the voter slides the ballot into a scanner, which would kick it back for a re-do. With absentee voting, once the ballot is out of its envelope, there's no way to give the voter a do-over.
When must ballots arrive at the election office?
There are two major answers to this question: Either ballots must be received by the close of polls on Election Day, or they need to be postmarked (or otherwise clocked by the U.S. Postal Service) by Election Day. This second approach is used in Alabama, Alaska, California, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Washington and West Virginia. Requiring receipt of the voted ballot by Election Day means no waiting for late-coming ballots and will lead to quicker results reporting.
Who can return a voted ballot—just the voter, or others?
Sometimes a voter can’t return their ballot, so they ask a family member or friend to do so. Is that OK? Campaign staff or volunteers may go door to door asking if ballots are completed, and if so, offering to return them for the voter. Is that OK?
States have different answers to those questions. On one side of the continuum, Alabama says the voter must return the ballot. In the middle, nine states allow a family member to return a ballot for a voter, and on the other side, 27 states allow the voter to designate someone to return their ballot for them. Thirteen states are silent on the issue.
Among the 27 states where a voter can designate someone to return their ballot, 12 have placed limits on the number of ballots any one agent can collect and return. Returning ballots for others is known as ballot collection or, pejoratively, “ballot harvesting.” The limits are based on the concern that saving someone the task of returning their ballot can bleed into encouraging them to vote a certain way and then returning the ballot. If this service is offered just in areas where one party or the other is strongest, it can benefit the party that collects the ballots. In the 2018 election, this issue came to the fore in California.
In January, an Arizona limit on the number of ballots any one person can return was ruled by a federal appeals court to violate the Voting Rights Act. A further appeal is possible.
Should postage be paid by the state?
Some states have begun guaranteeing postage for returned ballots—Oregon and Washington did so in 2019.
Paying postage remains the choice in a minority of cases, though it may not be as costly as it might first appear. Many voters opt for dropping off their ballots at election offices or 24-hour secure drop boxes, when that’s a choice. Legislators may need to provide authority for the use of secure drop boxes or can require them, as Washington did in 2017.
One note: The U.S. Postal Service has a policy of delivering all election mail, regardless of postage. Not that election officials want to create an unfunded mandate for others!
Will more absentee/mail voting affect some populations more than others?
Rural populations with spotty access to mail, as well as urban voters who move frequently, may be negatively affected by absentee/mail voting.
Native Americans living on reservations, in particular, may experience hurdles. Some reservations aren’t platted, which means residents might not have a postal address. Some people may share a P.O. box, but that can make it difficult to receive the correct ballot and ensure privacy.
Literacy is also an issue for some populations. Ballots are often written in college-level English, and those voting at home with limited proficiency may not have the resources to understand and correctly complete their ballot.
Legislative Action Bulletin
- States in session: 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
- Adjourned: New Mexico.
- Not yet convened: Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina.
- Not in session this year: Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Texas.
- Active election bills: 2762 (including carry-over bills from 2019).
- Total bills enacted in 2020: 14.
Enactments passed so far this year represent a wide array of topics.
Arizona implemented requirements for accuracy testing on electronic vote adjudication processes, which are a faster way to resolve voter errors on ballots, such as a smudged mark.
Illinois will now allow excused absences from school for students who are eligible to vote.
New York will now give themselves more time before elections to send out mailers for list maintenance purposes.
West Virginia expanded options for absentee voting and will now allow voters with disabilities to vote by mail or by electronic absentee ballot. Voting by phone, as is suggested here, is always a touchy subject.
New Jersey enacted the “Voting Precinct Transparency Act,” requiring county election officials to release election data in machine readable format, which will facilitate public access.
Other election bills enacted this year include legislation in California (registration in partisan primary elections), Washington D.C. (qualifications for candidates to get on a presidential primary ballot), Maine (municipal recounts), Maryland (special elections), New Jersey (online voter registration) and South Dakota (ballot pamphlets, run-offs and township elections).
For a round-up of enactments in 2019, please see our new webpage. This year’s bills can be found on our legislation database.
From the Chair
This month we spoke with Texas Representative Stephanie Klick (R). Klick represents District 91, which includes the northeastern portion of Fort Worth. She has served in the Texas House of Representatives since 2012 and is the current chair of the House Committee on Elections.
How did you get selected to chair the House Committee on Elections?
Prior to being in the legislature I was the chair of a Republican County party, and I had many years of experience with election issues. Those were factors when the speaker was making committee chair appointments.
What are the major election priorities for you and Texas?
A number of our larger counties are making the transition to vote centers for the 2020 election. We had a constitutional amendment election in November 2019, and that’s usually a better election to roll out new equipment and new procedures. So I have some concerns that—because 2020 will be a high-turnout election—the large counties might have some glitches, just due to the volume of voters.
We also passed some legislation last session that deals with electronic poll books, which are necessary for vote centers. Prior to that bill, we did not have any regulations or standards in place for poll books. Now during the interim we are conducting our oversight hearings, making sure the voting equipment works effectively.
The Texas Legislature is not in session in 2020. Could you say more about how you are using this interim period in relation to election issues?
Mostly the interim period is a time for our oversight role. We monitor agencies and their implementation of what we passed last session—with electronic poll books being one example.
We’re also using this time to study how to conduct elections during large-scale disasters. We have hurricanes in our coastal region, so we need to know what to put in place and what the best practices are.
Election security and cybersecurity are hot topics. Where is Texas on that front?
We recently passed legislation to fund security audits for all of Texas’s counties. I think that’s hugely important. We have some small counties—some as small as 60 residents—and they don’t have big IT departments. One of the things we’ve learned from the counties that have completed the security audits is that the smaller ones often need help understanding things like digital hygiene.
We have had a number of government entities (not election-related ones) succumb to a ransomware attack. That was a great wake-up call that we need to be very serious about digital hygiene. Not only are the audits ongoing, they also provide recommendations for fixing any areas that may have weaknesses. We hope to have security audits for all 254 counties completed prior to the November election.
I understand you’ve been instrumental in getting Texas to join the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). Could you talk a little about how that is going?
I passed the legislation a number of sessions ago that would allow our state to participate in ERIC’s cross-check program. We haven’t participated yet because money to do so was not appropriated until this session. It’s important because we’ve got to provide our counties and our state with the resources to do the list maintenance activities that are required by federal statute.
What are you most proud of election-wise in Texas?
The two bills I’ve talked about—security audits for counties and the poll book standards—are hugely important for our elections. Both of those help improve the security of our election system.
Anything else you think your peers in other states might find interesting?
Many of our counties are purchasing new equipment. We have some very small counties and some very large counties, and those sizes can pose unique challenges. Harris County, for example, is our largest county, and they have one of the longest ballots in the country—that’s a challenge for the equipment they might put in place.
What is an Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) and how is it used in elections?
According to the U.S. Postal Service, IMb is a barcode “used to identify mailpiece movement through the postal system and support any additional services requested for that mailpiece.” A portion of the IMb is a numerical Service Type Identifier (STID). In 2018, USPS designated ballot-specific STIDs that improve ballot mail delivery with increased visibility in the mail stream. Using IMbs can increase ballot security with real-time ballot tracking for voters and election officials. Some states, such as Iowa and Kansas, have passed legislation allowing for the data contained in the IMb to prove a ballot was mailed in time if a postmark is missing or illegible.
To find your area and district election mail coordinators, use this map provided by the Postal Service. You can also view the 2020 Official Election Mail Kit.
Ballot Selfies Coming to Anchorage
The Anchorage Assembly passed a new ordinance allowing the city’s residents to post selfies with their ballots on social media. The municipal code does, however, prohibit anyone from showing other people pictures of their ballots within 200 feet of a polling location. For state laws addressing ballot selfies, see NCSL’s webpage on the secrecy of the ballot.
LA County Introduces New Voting System for Super Tuesday
Los Angeles County’s new voting system, Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP), will bring big changes to the largest election jurisdiction in the country. Changes include replacing polling places with vote centers, redesigned ballots, touchscreen ballot marking devices available in 13 languages and a reviewable printed ballot. Although rollout has been bumpy, Super Tuesday will be the real test.
Uncounted Ballots Found in Mesa County, Colo.
A local elections clerk found nearly 600 uncounted ballots from the November 2019 election in a drop box in Grand Junction, Colo. The ballots were found by staffers picking up ballots for the state’s March 3 presidential primary. Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters stressed that the lost ballots would not have changed any 2019 election results.
Ballot Access for Disabled Voters
The West Virginia Legislature passed a law that will allow people with disabilities to use electronic absentee ballots. Similarly, a bill in the Utah Legislature would direct election officials to explore using mobile-voting software across the state. This bill comes on the heels of Utah County’s implementation of Voatz, an app used to help people with disabilities vote.
Monthly Dose of Cybersecurity
Alliance for Securing Democracy—The Alliance for Securing Democracy released The Election Official’s Handbook, a guidebook that highlights six things local election officials can do to secure their election systems, ranging from securing election websites to hiring a chief information security officer and forming an election cybersecurity working group.
Washington, D.C.—The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has released a new tool for state and local election officials: Elections Cyber Tabletop Exercise Package (also known as “tabletop in a box”). CISA has led tabletop exercises for the past few years, and this new product will enable individual jurisdictions to hold their own exercises to practice responding to different emergencies and cyber threats.
Redmond, Wash.—Microsoft’s open-source software development kit, ElectionGuard, received its first real world test in a local Wisconsin election, a big step toward fine-tuning the resource. After a voter selects his or her choices on a touchscreen, ElectionGuard produces two paper copies for the voter to double-check, placing one in the ballot box and keeping the other (with a QR code) to ensure the vote gets counted after polls close. According to CNET, the system doesn’t “create an unhackable vote—no one thinks that's possible—but rather a vote in which hacks would be quickly noticed.”
St. Paul, Minn.—Minnesota hired its first “cybernavigator,” Bill Ekblad, who will help local election workers identify and prevent an ever-expanding set of cyber concerns, including foreign interference and disinformation campaigns. Ekblad will serve as a liaison between state and local election officials, providing regular briefings and educational content, as well as a statewide tabletop exercise in April. Illinois debuted the cybernavigator concept in 2018.
Conflict Over Felon Voting Rights Continues in Florida
A federal appeals court sided with 17 ex-felon plaintiffs in holding that a Florida law barring ex-felons from voting if they had not paid fines, fees or restitution violates the Equal Protection Clause. The law requiring payments followed a 2018 amendment to Florida’s constitution that restored voting rights to convicted felons. While the decision of the appeals court only applies to the 17 named plaintiffs, the federal district court will hold a trial in April to consider the constitutionality of the law as applied to all ex-felons.
U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) Announces “Clearie” Award Winners
Each year, the EAC announces the recipients of its Clearinghouse Awards. The Clearie Awards “recognize the innovative efforts of election officials across America,” including the Most Creative and Original “I Voted” stickers. The sticker from Douglas County, Nev., for example, includes braille—the white dots on the pictured sticker will be raised at the printers. Find more information about all the winners.