Election Day 2020 is just 32 days away, and officials are taking steps to prepare for a myriad of uncertainties surrounding voting this fall. The Constitution gives states the leading role in administering elections, and they sure have their work cut out for them this year. It’s shaping up to be a record breaker in terms of total voter turnout and the number of voters casting mail-in ballots. Add to that the changes in voting rules at the state level, the pandemic and social distancing requirements at polling locations, and an anticipated shortage of poll workers, and it’s going to require voters to take some extra time to ensure they are complying with voting regulations and able to participate in the electoral process.
In a typical year, voting in the general election can be confusing, and in 2020, in response to COVID-19, things are looking even more complicated. Some states are allowing concerns about COVID to be an excuse to vote by mail, while other states are not. Each state determines its own voting rules, with election officials grappling with whether voters are automatically mailed ballots, automatically mailed applications for mail-in ballots, or if voters must request to receive an application to vote by mail (if they meet their state’s eligibility requirements). The rules for returning ballots also vary by state along with the deadlines for registering to vote.
Before the pandemic, five states already held all-mail elections, meaning every active registered voter automatically received a ballot in the mail without having to request one and could avoid voting in person. Due to the pandemic, several more states have expanded opportunities to vote by mail and many have eliminated the requirement that voters have an “excuse” to cast a mail-in ballot, such as being over the age of 65 or being out of the country.
Early voting is similarly disjointed with each state having their own rules and timelines. All states allow some form of early voting which may include casting votes in person at polling places, voting by mail, or both. Some states allow the “processing” of mail-in ballots, including opening them, verifying signatures, and sorting ballots into the correct piles for tabulation, to begin as many as three weeks before Election Day. Some states only allow it to begin on Election Day itself, which can lead to a lengthy count, particularly for states who may be overwhelmed by this year’s large number of mail-in ballots.
In case you are wondering about the rules in Texas, to apply for an absentee ballot in the Lone Star state, you must be 65 years or older, be sick or disabled, be out of the county on election day and during the period for early voting by personal appearance, or be confined in jail, but otherwise eligible. Texas does not recognize concerns about COVID as an excuse to allow voting by mail. Texas Governor Abbot issued an order yesterday requiring the closing of all but one drop-off location per county for voters casting absentee ballots. It was quickly met with a lawsuit from voter rights organizations, so voters in Texas should be aware of the possibility for additional changes.
Despite all these twists and turns, voter turnout in 2020 could reach the highest levels in decades—if not the highest in the past century. In 1908, turnout reached 65.4% of the voting age population. Since 1972 when the voting age dropped to 18 from 21, the percentage of the voting age population that turned out to vote peaked 58.23% in 2008 when Obama defeated McCain, and hit a low of 49.00% in 1996 when Clinton won a second term. In the 2016 general election, voter turnout was 55.67% of the voting age population with 136 million votes cast. Officials forecast a voter turnout as high as 66% this fall.
Voters heading to the polls may again experience long lines (similar to the primaries) or a reduction in polling locations due to staffing issues. A large percentage of polls are typically staffed by elderly workers, but they’re at high risk of COVID-19, which has led to poll worker shortages this year. Cities and states are heavily recruiting to fill those much needed spots and to avoid cutting the number of polling sites.
If you plan to vote by mail, there are some things to know to ensure your vote is counted. About 1% of absentee ballots in the 2016 election were rejected, according to a report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The most common reasons a ballot was rejected include: “the signature on the ballot not matching the signature on the state’s records,” “ballot not received on time/missed deadline,” and “no voter signature.” Other reasons for rejection included “voter voted in person,” “no witness signature” and “problem with return materials.” The federal government’s voting website at https://www.usa.gov/election-day
allows voters to check their registration, determine their state’s voting requirements, check polling locations, and more.