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From Mail-In Ballots To Registration: Your Voting Questions, Answered

Your voting questions, answered. (Getty Images)
Your voting questions, answered. (Getty Images)

Your vote counts — and professor Edward Foley is here to remind you of that.

Each individual vote “absolutely matters,” says Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

Since democracy is a collective enterprise, he says, group determination and turnout is what ultimately determines who takes office on Americans’ behalf.

Mistakes can happen because elections are a human-run process, he says. And during a pandemic year with a mail-in voting surge, he advises to be proactive about creating a voting plan in advance of Nov. 3.

Below, Foley answers questions sent in by Here & Now listeners and readers.

How do I confirm I’m registered to vote?

Many — but not all — local board of elections’ websites allow voters to check their registration status, Foley says.

“Some do not, and then you’d have to get their phone number and call in. But it’s easier to do it online when that’s available. Sort of a basic point in all of this is election law varies state to state and sometimes even city to city, town to town. And so when I say something, I’ll give you the kind of general rule or general practice, and it may not apply in every instance. But many places now you can do this online.”

If a mail-in ballot is thrown out in Pennsylvania — where the state’s Supreme Court just ordered officials to throw out ballots without a secrecy envelope — is the person who submitted the ballot notified?

It’s complicated, Foley says.

“My understanding of Pennsylvania law, which is quite in flux at the moment because of all the controversies there, is that the state legislature has a bill pending that would allow for that kind of notification. Other states do that. It’s a very good practice. But Pennsylvania would need to update its rules to make for that sort of notification, to bring their laws up to speed to what other states do. So I think that’s one where you have to stay tuned on that particular issue for that particular state.”

Can I track my mail-in or absentee ballot in Pennsylvania?

Voters should be able to track on the state’s new online tracking system, but glitches may occur, Foley says.

“Well, yes and no. Pennsylvania does have a version of this, as do other states. But the last I saw through Twitter and social media was there were some glitches and problems with that, unfortunately. So part of it is that Pennsylvania is converting to what’s sometimes called no-excuse vote by mail or no-excuse absentee voting, where anybody can choose that method of voting if they want to for whatever reason. And this was going to be the first year that Pennsylvania was going to do that even before the pandemic hit. And so it was going to be a challenge to roll out this new system. It’s obviously an even greater challenge with the pandemic. And, of course, … it’s a battleground state. So I think the answer is, yes, this tracking process exists, but it may be a little bit glitchy, unfortunately.”

Without requesting one, a Wisconsin resident was mailed an application for an absentee ballot with a picture of Trump and the words “President Trump wants you to return this form” on the application. Yet the president claims mail-in voting isn’t safe. What voting-related mail can and can’t you trust?

First, establish a voting game plan, Foley says. If you plan to cast a ballot in-person, then you can ignore the application, he says. But if you do plan to mail-in your vote, then question the legitimacy of the application or mailer, he advises.

“I think the best way to think about this is to say not everything that happens in the voting process is the way it should happen. And I also think non-governmental entities can encourage people to vote and to vote absentee and to try to have their fliers look like official business. Again, this also varies state to state.

“So the way in which I would handle this is to ask, did anything happen here that would undermine the integrity of the election, that would compromise the ability of the system to do it properly? And I think the answer to that based on what I hear is no. I mean, you might wish it hadn’t occurred this way. You might wish pictures shouldn’t be on particular fliers. You might be confused about what kind of mailing that I’ve got. But if you’re the voter, ask yourself, have I figured out my method of voting? Every voter should have a plan for how they’re going to vote and not be distracted by sideshows. So if you know you’re going to vote in person, don’t worry about collateral stuff that might come in the mail that doesn’t really undermine your vote.

“If you want to vote by mail and you see a piece of paper you’re not sure if it’s a legitimate piece of paper, and then you might say, ‘Well, let me take a real close look at this.’ If it’s a ballot application, again, it’s not your actual ballot. You’re going to have to take two steps to the process. One is sending an application to request your ballot and then get your ballot back. Anybody who wants to vote by mail should either have already applied for a ballot already or be very proactive at this point because time is of the essence, given the Postal Service and whatnot. And so trusted sources [are] key. Find out from your local board what’s the proper way to apply and cast an absentee ballot. Don’t trust just any old flier that shows up.

“Unfortunately, this happens every year or every presidential cycle, there are more shady groups out there that try to do disinformation and confuse voters. And so voters have to be alert. And along those lines, it’s easy, unfortunately, to be tripped up, especially if you’re not used to voting by mail and you’ve always voted in person.”

How do I make sure I properly fill out my mail-in ballot?

Thoroughly read through the directions and take your time, Foley suggests.

“Get a quiet zone for yourself. Just take the time to read the instructions carefully. If you don’t understand the instructions, have somebody else kind of help process what is expected of me? If you take the time to do it slowly, you’re much more likely to do it successfully.”

Where can I find a list of amendment proposals for my state?

The League of Women Voters is a reliable source to find amendment proposals, he says.

“The League of Women Voters usually does a really good job with that. I would put them in the category of trusted information, particularly on that kind of voter information. Usually, the secretary of state’s office and website will have that information because they have to approve the language for ballot measures like that. Sometimes local newspapers will have a section of their website devoted to election-related information.”


Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.