How do states protect and verify absentee/mail-in ballots?
Absentee/mail-in voting does not happen in person on Election Day but instead occurs another way (generally by mail). All states allow for some form of absentee/mail-in voting, and all states establish mechanisms for verifying the validity of absentee/mail-in ballots. This article summarizes three of the most common verification mechanisms:
• Signature requirements and signature matching
• Witness requirements
• Ballot collection laws
All 50 states require a valid signature for an absentee/mail-in ballot to be counted. According to The New York Times, 32 states use the signature provided with a voter’s absentee/mail-in ballot to verify his or her identity by comparing it with the signature on file (e.g., the signature on a driver’s license or voter registration application). Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia practice signature matching and allow voters to remedy mismatches. Another four states practice signature matching, but do not allow voters to remedy mismatches. Eighteen states either do not have signature matching laws or do not practice signature matching on a regular basis.
Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, told The New York Times that signature matching “is the best way to strike a balance between security, transparency, and accessibility for voters” when done properly, including a process to fix signature mismatches. Mark Gaber, the director of trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center, said that signature matching was problematic, with courts having found “that there’s a high risk of wrongly being identified as not having signed your ballot.
The map below identifies the states that use signature matching and allow for remedying mismatches, those that use signature matching and do not allow for remedying mismatches, and those that do not use signature matching.
A witness requirement is a rule requiring a voter to have another individual witness the voter filling out his or her ballot and attesting that the person filling out the ballot is the voter to whom the ballot is addressed. States with witness requirements may require that the witness be a notary. Others allow any adult citizen to act as a witness for this purpose. For the 2020 general election, seven states have a witness requirement for absentee/mail-in ballots, with one of those states requiring that the witness be a notary. The map below highlights states with witness requirements.
Proponents of witness requirements argue that the process prevents fraud by holding others (the witness) accountable for the authenticity of the voter. Prior to voting in favor of a witness requirement, Oklahoma state Rep. Chris Kannady (R) said, “The worse thing that you can do is fraudulently vote . . . and this is the way we prevent that from happening. Opponents of witness requirements say that these rules complicate the voting process for the elderly, those who live alone, and individuals with disabilities or chronic health problems. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) said, “I live alone and I actually went outside and waited for the first person I saw walking their dog and asked if they could stop for a moment and be my witness. Imagine living in a rural community and living alone where that wouldn’t an option. Or living alone and being afraid to let someone in because we’re in a pandemic.
Ballot Collection Laws
Most states have laws allowing someone other than a voter to return the voter’s absentee/mail-in ballot. These laws, referred to as ballot collection or ballot harvesting laws, vary by state. As of August 2020, 24 states and the District of Columbia permitted someone chosen by the voter to return the ballot on the voter’s behalf in most cases. Twelve states specified who may return ballots (i.e., household members, caregivers, and/or family members) in most cases. One state explicitly allowed only the voter to return his or her ballot. Thirteen states did not specify whether someone may return another’s ballot.
Twelve states limit the number of ballots one individual may collect and return. Wendy Underhill, director of the elections and redistricting program for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), said that from a voter’s perspective, “[ballot collection] may be taken as a kindness if someone offers to mail in or drop off a voted ballot. NCSL also says, however, that such a limit on the number of ballots on individual may return “are based on the concern that saving people the task of returning their ballot can bleed into encouraging them to vote a certain way.
Information sourced from Ballotpedia.
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