This is an election year unlike any other, to put it mildly.
With the pandemic raging on, many voters will turn to mail-in voting to avoid potentially crowded polling places. Yet the U.S. Postal Service, which is enshrined by the Constitution and often used to deliver absentee and mail-in ballots — terms that are generally used interchangeably — is buckling.
Amid the pandemic, President Trump has refused to aid the USPS, which faced financial difficulties even before the coronavirus spread. Instead of offering financial help, Trump has made claims, without evidence, that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud. (For more context, you can turn to Mashable’s previous coverage of the USPS’ woes.)
The current head of the postal service, Louis DeJoy, was appointed by the Trump administration, and reports of the deactivation of mail sorting machines and the removal of mailboxes have caused alarm about the timeliness (and accessibility) of voting this fall.
Amid all of the mayhem surrounding the USPS right now, people have been sharing ways to make sure your vote is counted.
Typically, if you meet the deadline for mailing in your ballot with prepaid postage through the USPS, there’s little reason to believe that it would arrive too late to count.
That might not be the case this year, though: On August 14, the Washington Post reported the USPS warned 46 states and the District of Columbia that it cannot guarantee all mail-in ballots will arrive in time to get counted.
While there’s no guarantee votes won’t be counted, if you’re voting by mail this election, it’s prudent to do all you can to ensure your vote gets counted.
Mashable talked to Sarah Brannon, a managing attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, about how to ensure your mail-in vote gets counted in this tumultuous election.
1. Sign your name and vote on time
There are some differences between mail-in and in-person voting that might prevent your vote from getting counted if you don’t follow proper procedures. Brannon notes two big ones: Signatures and timing.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission report from the 2016 election found that a missing signature, an unverified signature, or a late arrival were the most common reasons mail-in ballots got rejected that election. These basic concerns still apply, Brannon points out.
So, make yourself aware of the deadlines and ensure that your ballot is in on time. Unlike in-person voting, mail-in ballots need to be received by particular deadlines that change from state-to-state. Your state elections authority, such as your local board of elections or secretary of state, will have the most up-to-date information on this. (Use this portal to find your state’s election website.)
With all of the delays likely to unfold (more on that later), it’s ideal that you turn your ballot in early.
“The advice is just to start as early as you can,” Brannon says of the process. “Absentee ballots are usually available 30 to 40 days before election day.”
Before turning in your ballot, it’s also crucial that it’s signed, Brannon notes. In some states, that just means signing your own name, but certain states also require a witness signature on these ballots.
Voting rights advocates argue that this requirement is unrealistic given the social distancing required by coronavirus, and Brannon notes the ACLU has lawsuits underway to change these requirements just for the pandemic. That said, the requirements are currently in place in some states, so you should look out for that when perusing your own state’s requirements.
2. Look into state specifics
The pandemic led to some swift changes to absentee voting for the primaries. Not all of the same rules apply for the general election, though, Brannon points out.
In some states, any registered voter can vote absentee this year. Some states will accept coronavirus concerns as an excuse to vote absentee, while others require an excuse beyond the pandemic.
You should determine what the vote by mail situation is for the general election in your state. Again, to get the most up-to-date information, you should check with your state elections authority.
It’s possible that there will be changes to rules as the election approaches, so staying aware of potential changes is crucial, Brannon notes. The ACLU is keeping track of timelines, regulations, and pending litigation state-by-state, and you can look for updates there as well to determine what litigation still might change the absentee voting process. (She notes the ACLU plans to have information for every state available by Labor Day.)
And a note for those who are unable to vote by mail or are choosing not to: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released guidance on what it has determined necessary with regard to safety considerations at your polling place to curb the spread of coronavirus. You should also read its recommendations for voters before heading into your polling place.
3. Explore all of your delivery options
With all of the chaos happening within the USPS, it’s possible that your vote might not arrive on time if sent via USPS because of delays.
While that’s not a totally unfounded fear, Brannon notes that it might not be the case if you vote early. For rural voters especially, turning in your ballot via the USPS might be one of the only accessible ways to deliver an absentee ballot, she adds.
Still, she stresses that voters should consider all of their options for turning in their absentee ballot.
In almost any state, you can return a mail-in ballot to a local election office, Brannon notes. Some states also have dropboxes for voting, which look like mailboxes and are maintained by election officials. Many states also allow you to drop off your completed mail-in ballot at a polling station or an early vote location.
Check the websites of local election officials for information on when and how you can drop off your ballot. (She notes that dropboxes, for instance, could be located within an office, or they might otherwise have specific hours of operation.)
Additionally, the National Conference of State Legislatures has information on who can return your ballot. Brannon notes you’ll want to confirm that information if you’re unable to turn in your ballot yourself.
4. Track your ballot
Certain states — like Oregon, Washington, California, and Colorado — already have systems in place that you can sign up for in order to track your ballot. If that’s the case where you’re registered to vote, you’ll want to do that if you’re trying to confirm your vote got counted.
Even if your state doesn’t have a system in place for tracking your ballot, Brannon notes you can still follow up through other methods.
The board of elections or secretary of state websites in your state likely list a 1-800 number you can call to check the status of your ballot, she says, and recommends using that to contact city or county election officials, who are the ones most directly managing absentee ballots.
They’ll likely get flooded with calls closer to election day, so, again, like everything concerning mail-in voting this year, you’ll want to do this early.