10172020 Election Vidro

In this Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, photo, an election worker inserts mail-in ballots into a voting machine at a school in Williamstown, Mass., during the state’s primary election.

By Arthur Vidro

Throughout our pandemic-plagued nation, every state is faced with trying to safeguard voter safety, and making it easier to vote, without sacrificing the traditional security of the voting booth. It’s a difficult balancing act.

For instance, drop boxes. They are locked receptacles – somewhat akin to a padlocked mailbox – for folks to slip in their signed and sealed Election Day ballots without having to show up at the polls or visit a city or county agency. Voters also have the option of mailing in their filled-out ballots, but there is an element of uncertainty on how swiftly or slowly the post office will deliver them.

I asked about drop-off boxes at the local headquarters of the two major parties. At my first stop, the fellow tending shop claimed never to have heard of drop boxes and that the hoopla about mail-in ballots “is just a bunch of noise.” At my second stop, folks there said they’d heard of drop boxes but had never seen one.

Though apparently not a local concern, drop boxes are a national concern.

Election officials in Wisconsin’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, are expanding the use of absentee-ballot drop boxes this fall. The drop boxes are wanted to help offset a series of changes with the U.S. Postal Service that has slowed mail just as election officials brace for a surge in absentee voting because of the pandemic.

In this year’s White House race, lawsuits are flying over how ballots and ballot applications are distributed, witnessed, and signed. Republicans, including the President’s reelection campaign, demand limits while Democrats push for further voting opportunities.

It gets dizzying keeping on top of the lawsuits, many of which concern drop boxes. Plus, a suit in one state usually has no bearing on conditions in neighboring states.

In Ohio, Democrats sued the state’s election chief on Aug. 25, seeking to force an expansion of ballot drop boxes ahead of the November election. Voting advocates have promoted the use of drop boxes as a key tool to deliver absentee ballots to election boards during the pandemic.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has urged local officials to consider using part of the state’s federal coronavirus assistance to pay for more drop-off boxes for mail-in ballots.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills is allowing external drop boxes for absentee ballots and letting clerks begin processing ballots earlier to deal with an anticipated heavy volume, her office said. The governor’s executive order also limits the number of people in polling places to 50 and requires physical distancing.

In Virginia, state lawmakers have advanced proposals aimed at making absentee voting easier amid the pandemic, including having the state prepay postage, set up drop boxes, establish a process for voters to fix paperwork problems on improperly submitted ballots, and put bar codes on absentee ballot envelopes to track their delivery.

However, the state’s Republican Party says state elections officials have created confusion among voters by failing to make it clear that a witness signature requirement for absentee voters has been waived during the pandemic.

Some states require your absentee ballot to be witnessed. 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.

Attorneys representing Alaska want the judge to deny the request to block enforcement of a witness requirement for absentee ballots, saying ballot envelopes listing the requirement have already been printed, and that the plaintiffs, who cite health concerns amid the pandemic, waited too long to sue.

Some states, including Missouri, require a voter’s signature on an absentee ballot to be notarized. With absentee voting underway, attorneys for civil rights groups urged the state Supreme Court on Oct. 6 to ease requirements for those concerned about the coronavirus by allowing anyone to vote remotely without needing to notarize ballots.

There’s a lot of confusion in South Carolina, where Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law Sept. 16 changes in state voting rules, allowing all voters to cast absentee ballots without a reason in November’s election. But the changes did not include proposals pushed by Democrats to eliminate the requirement that a second person witness and sign the ballot, nor did the new law contain a proposal from Democrats to allow for ballots to be placed in drop boxes. So absentee ballots will still have to be mailed in or dropped off in person at voting offices in each county.

Republicans sought to maintain the witness signature requirement, arguing it guards against voter fraud. Democrats contended the requirement has little impact on fraud and would force voters who are infected with COVID-19 to interact with healthy people to obtain the signature.

Then the courts got involved in South Carolina, first saying a witness signature would not be required for absentee ballots, then saying the witness signature would be required, then circling back to say the witness signature would not be required.

The flurry of federal court rulings has left South Carolinians confused and frustrated over whether they need witnesses to sign their mail-in ballots, even as absentee voting has begun.

Some folks physically can’t get out to vote. In the past, Arizona has provided special election boards to people in hospitals and long-term care facilities, allowing them to cast a vote in person without being in a traditional polling place. But with long-term care facilities hit hard by COVID-19, visitor restrictions have made that job more difficult. In some places they are adjusting with technology, but Gov. Doug Ducey, in a letter to his Secretary of State, said elections officials should suspend plans to help voters in nursing homes and hospitals cast ballots through video calls.

Important: If you live in Claremont, for your absentee ballot to be counted it must be received by the City Clerk’s office before 5 p.m. on Election Day. In other words, don’t wait until November.

If you have consumerism questions, send them to Arthur Vidro in the care of this newspaper, which publishes his column every weekend. Arthur Vidro’s latest short story appears in the Wildside Press anthology “The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen,” published in October 2020.

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