STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The pandemic is prompting many states to expand absentee and mail-in voting. But NPR's Pam Fessler reports there are some drawbacks.
DENIA MAHONEY: Oh, my goodness.
BRENDA WILLIAMS: Yeah, ain't seen you in quite a while.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Brenda Williams is a doctor and voting rights activist in Sumter, S.C. She's come to Denia Mahoney's (ph) home with some bad news.
WILLIAMS: Your absentee ballot that you cast in June 2018 was never counted.
FESSLER: It turns out that Mahoney didn't have a witness sign her envelope as required. Mahoney, a disabled senior citizen who sits propped up by pillows on her couch with a walker nearby, says she had no idea.
MAHONEY: They didn't call me back or send it back saying I didn't sign it, you know - nobody notarized it or nothing.
FESSLER: Local officials say they try to contact voters to fix such mistakes, but they don't reach everyone. So some ballots end up being rejected. And nationally, the numbers add up. In 2018, more than 430,000 mail-in ballots were tossed, mostly because they didn't arrive at the election office on time or the voter didn't sign the envelope or their signature didn't match the one on record, which is why voting rights activists are concerned as people rush to promote mail-in balloting amid the current health crisis.
KRISTEN CLARKE: Moving the country in a direction towards 100% vote-by-mail at this stage, I think, is dangerous.
FESSLER: Kristen Clarke heads the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She favors more voting options but worries that some people, especially voters of color, will be left out. Their absentee ballots tend to be rejected at higher rates than those of white voters, who've been more inclined in the past to vote by mail. Clarke says the rules can be confusing for those doing it for the first time.
CLARKE: We need to make sure that there is widespread and extensive voter education so that people know how to vote by mail, how to fill out the ballot and envelope and return it. We've got to make sure people know the timelines.
FESSLER: Because they now differ from state to state - in some places, absentee ballots are counted as long as they're postmarked by Election Day, even if they arrive a few days later; in other states, absentee ballots have to be received before Election Day. Michael Morley, an assistant professor at Florida State University College of Law, says while voting by mail is certainly safer and more convenient, there are trade-offs.
MICHAEL MORLEY: There are many more stages at which things can go wrong.
FESSLER: He says even if a voter sends a ballot in on time with the right signature, there's no guarantee it will be counted.
MORLEY: They don't know for sure if they are properly filling out their ballots. They might inadvertently undervote a race, either skipping a race or marking too lightly that the machine can't read it.
FESSLER: Just the kind of mistake that's usually caught at the polling place, where voters have a chance to recast their ballot. And there are other potential problems, like ballots being mailed to the wrong address.
MORLEY: Vote-by-mail is certainly an important part of our system. It's going to play an important role in our response specifically to the coronavirus. But it's not a panacea.
FESSLER: In fact, Morley says the best defense is having a variety of voting options. While vote-by-mail might look good now, it won't be much use if there's a threat to the postal system, like the anthrax attack after 9/11. Advocates of vote-by-mail also think the states need to remove any unnecessary barriers. Tammy Patrick of the Democracy Fund says it doesn't make sense, for example, to demand that a mail-in ballot be witnessed during a health crisis.
TAMMY PATRICK: The last thing you need to do is to require that voter to interact with another person in order to vote.
FESSLER: She and others say states need to make these decisions very soon so there's enough time to get the word out and so voters like Denia Mahoney don't lose their rights in the effort to protect the election.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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