By Arthur Vidro
In this year’s White House race, more than 300 lawsuits have been filed over the expansion of voting by mail.
Why so many?
Because each state has its own election laws and may act independently.
Only Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington historically conduct elections entirely by mail; California chose to join them for this year because of the pandemic. In states that have historically used mail ballots, voters merely sit back and the ballots arrive.
Vermont has sent ballots to all its voters.
Many other states have sent to all registered voters an application for a mail ballot; however, no mail ballot arrives unless the application is filled out, submitted, and processed.
Some states have succeeded in clearing the way for more mail balloting. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed an order allowing all Massachusetts voters to vote by mail for the election in November.
There can be resistance.
After Nevada passed its vote-by-mail law, the president’s reelection campaign filed suit to challenge it. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying the campaign failed to show how it could be harmed.
In Louisiana, the secretary of state and Legislature initially limited mail voting for November. But a federal judge, asked by Gov. John Bel Edwards to order the state’s elections chief to broaden the use of mail voting because of the pandemic, ruled against the limitations.
Sometimes the effort fails.
In late August, a federal judge denied a bid to require the Indiana Election Commission to make voting by mail available to all registered voters this November.
Sometimes the suit is between county and state.
Texas is one of the few states not allowing more people to vote by mail in November. On Aug. 31, the state sued to stop more than two million registered voters in Harris County (Houston’s locale) from receiving applications to submit ballots by mail. On Sept. 2, the Texas State Supreme Court stopped the county’s plan. But nine days later, another state judge ruled differently, allowing the county to send all registered voters a mail-in ballot application.
Some states allow no-excuse absentee voting next month but put the onus on the voter to acquire the application for a mail ballot. New Hampshire sent each resident a placemat-sized mailing that clearly explains what steps must be taken to procure an application. That’s just for the application, not for the ballot itself.
Some states spring for mail-ballot postage; some require the voter to pay.
Do mail ballots work?
Relatives in Florida swear by them, though at times they vote too early and then kick themselves when they have a change of mind.
Merrily Boone, a West Coast acquaintance, says: “I’m in Washington state and we’ve voted here by mail for a few years. It works great. Everybody receives mail-in ballots if they’re registered; nobody has to apply. The only drawback is you have to wait for results because of the ballot counting. I recommend it.”
When do mailed-in votes get counted?
Each state decides for itself. Some get a head start by counting votes as they are received.
Democrats in Wisconsin have a pending lawsuit against the state that seeks to move up when ballots can start being counted.
In Michigan, Democratic-backed legislation proposes to allow clerks to begin the prework for counting absentee ballots before Election Day, but it has not advanced in the Legislature. On Sept. 24, Michigan began sending mail ballots to voters who asked for one.
New Hampshire is one of 10 states that prevent poll workers from counting, or even processing, ballots until Election Day. Here in Claremont, the mail ballots don’t reach the polls until midday, when they are delivered by the hardworking folks at City Hall who open and log in the ballot envelopes (without opening the inner envelopes that contain the ballots).
Then the ward’s election moderator – four years ago it was me – hovers over the ballot clerks to verify names, addresses, and signatures, and that the voter hasn’t voted in person; then the ballot clerk records that the voter has voted by mail. This takes time; voters who arrive live get priority. The moderator opens the inner envelopes and inserts the mail ballots into the vote-counting machine.
Voting by mail requires a signature, which leads to more state regulations.
A lawsuit filed Sept. 8 asked a judge to block election officials from enforcing during the pandemic a requirement that Alaska absentee voters have someone witness them signing their ballots.
Requirements in some states that people have mail-in ballots witnessed or notarized could expose voters who live alone to the virus. (I’m trying to remain apolitical, but requiring notarization is too damned excessive. When I was a New York notary, I typically charged $5 per notarization. Many charged $20.)
In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt activated a provision in state law that allows absentee voters to mail their ballots by verifying their signatures with a copy of an approved ID. Copies of IDs? Some homebound senior citizens will have trouble with that one.
Voters shouldn’t have to choose between their health and the right to vote in November, says a federal lawsuit filed over Mississippi’s absentee voting laws. Perhaps no state is doing more for voters than Rhode Island. State officials announced Sept.11 that it will send applications for mail-in ballots to every registered voter in advance of the November election. Plus, the state has developed a one-stop resource for residents with questions about voting during the pandemic; the office of its Secretary of State teamed up with United Way of Rhode Island to launch a 211 voter information hotline.
If you have consumerism questions, send them to Arthur Vidro in the care of this newspaper, which publishes his column every weekend.