Some States Reject Up To 5 Percent Of Votes Sent By Mail : Consider This from NPR Up to 70% of vote this November could be cast by mail. But not all states will allow it.

And a recent NPR survey found that 65,000 absentee or mail-in ballots have been rejected this year for being late.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly visited a county in Pennsylvania to see what challenges lay ahead for election night in a critical swing state.

Find and support your local public radio station.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
NPR logo

Voting By Mail Will Increase Dramatically This Year — And It Could Get Messy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/894091829/894418772" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Voting By Mail Will Increase Dramatically This Year — And It Could Get Messy

Voting By Mail Will Increase Dramatically This Year — And It Could Get Messy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/894091829/894418772" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In the last presidential election, about a quarter of all the votes around the country were cast by mail. This November, that number could be as high as 70%. I say could be because it depends on how many states allow it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRE HARGETT: It's important to note that Tennessee - you mentioned excuses - we have 14 excuses.

MCEVERS: In a Senate hearing today, Tre Hargett, the Tennessee secretary of state, said there are 14 excuses people can make to request a mail-in ballot. You can be sick. You can be hospitalized. You can even have plans to be out of town. But if you are worried about catching or spreading the coronavirus, that's not an excuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Senator King.

ANGUS KING: Mr. Hargett, I...

MCEVERS: This next question from Senator Angus King of Maine is going to take about a minute and we're just going to play the whole thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: I'm sort of astounded by your testimony. You're telling me that a citizen of Tennessee who is concerned about the coronavirus - which, by the way, your state is number 11 in the country in cases per 100,000 people - that's not a cool excuse? I don't know why you need an excuse to vote. But you're saying that someone can't say I don't want to stand in line for two hours with several hundred other people and protect my health - that that's not good enough in your state? Is that what you're telling me, Mr. Hargett?

HARGETT: Under Tennessee law, fear of contracting the coronavirus is not an excuse.

KING: Well, that's pitiful. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. That's all.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. Thank you, Senator King.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Coming up, how another state that could decide the whole election is getting ready and why we probably won't find out who they chose on the night of the election. This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Wednesday, July 22.

Earlier this month, hundreds of little pieces of white paper tied to string flapped in the wind in front of City Hall in Montclair, N.J. They looked like laundry hanging on a line. They actually were 1,000 blank-absentee ballots that had been put there by protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUSAN MACK: We stretched almost the entire block, and it was really powerful.

MCEVERS: Susan Mack is with the local League of Women Voters. And the ballots represented 1,100 mail-in ballots that were rejected in May in the city's election for mayor. Election officials said they were rejected mostly because people sent them in late. Mack says people did what they were supposed to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MACK: They got the vote by mail. They filled out the vote by mail. They mailed the vote-by-mail ballot, and then they didn't get counted. And it just breaks my heart. You know, this is what democracy is about.

MCEVERS: Those 1,100 voters mattered in Montclair. The new mayor won by 195 votes. And this is not only a problem in New Jersey. Fights are happening right now in states across the country about how votes will be counted in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KIRK NIELSEN: It took 11 days for my ballot to get a postmark, then five more days for it to at least get stamped as arrived.

MCEVERS: Kirk Nielsen in Florida has no idea why that happened to his ballot back in 2018, just that it was rejected for being late. Nielsen was a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by Democrats who wanted to change state deadlines so that any ballot postmarked by Election Day would be counted. That lawsuit was settled on Monday. The state agreed to more voter education and outreach but not to changing the deadline. Similar cases at other states are making their way through the courts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NIELSEN: I think there's an even greater risk this year voting by mail and that my mail-in ballot might not be counted.

MCEVERS: A recent survey from NPR found that some states rejected as many as 5% of mail-in-primary ballots this year for being late. Just in Pennsylvania, 15,000 ballots were thrown out. Think about that for a second. If you scale up for the presidential election, it could mean the difference between who wins and who loses. And here's another thing, people voting by mail for the first time - as well as younger voters and voters of color - are the most likely to have their ballots discarded. And voters of color in particular have also seen cuts in the number of polling places available to them.

KRISTEN CLARKE: We've seen long lines. We've seen malfunctioning polling equipment. We've seen scenes that we should not tolerate in a 21st century democracy.

MCEVERS: Kristen Clarke is president of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. And she told a Senate committee today messy primaries earlier this year in Milwaukee, Atlanta and New York are a sign that states are not ready for what is coming.

CLARKE: States need to use the 100-plus days in front of them to start putting in place reforms to ensure access to absentee balloting, expanded access to early voting and meaningful access on election day itself. That support is critical and needed now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: When she says support, she means money. Right now, Congress and the White House are negotiating more pandemic relief money. But Republicans are resisting Democratic efforts to include money to help states with mail-in voting. Even though, as we said, the percentage of people who vote by mail could nearly triple this year, which - if 2016 turnout is any guide - could mean nearly 100 million people. In Pennsylvania, the state secretary in charge of voting there, Kathy Boockvar, told my colleague Mary Louise Kelly they know it's going to be big.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KATHY BOOCKVAR: I would expect that we would probably see about 50% cast by mail.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Wow - 50%. I mean, it's stunning.

BOOCKVAR: It is stunning considering we've historically been 5%.

MCEVERS: Mary Louise went to Northampton County in Pennsylvania. It's one of just three counties in the state that went for Barack Obama twice and then went for Trump. And she wanted to hear how they are getting ready for November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KELLY: You used to have to give a reason if you wanted to vote by mail in Pennsylvania. That law changed last year. So election officials were expecting a modest increase in mail ballots for 2020. Then came the coronavirus. This spring, as the primary loomed, poll workers quit. They were worried about getting sick. Voters were worried about getting sick. Pennsylvania postponed its April primary. And by the time they held it last month, record numbers of ballots poured in by mail.

AMY HESS: This is our new office.

KELLY: Amy Hess, deputy registrar of elections for Northampton County - she's giving us a tour around the county government offices in Easton.

HESS: So this is our locked ballot room with a security camera.

KELLY: Offices which they have had to reconfigure given the unique challenges of 2020. Hess shows us where they set up tables on primary day to accommodate all the workers slicing open envelopes, extracting the ballot.

HESS: What took the longest was unfolding it and flattening it out.

KELLY: Now, in Northampton County, primary day went pretty smoothly, according to county executive Lamont McClure.

LAMONT MCCLURE: We were the first county in Pennsylvania to have our complete results in.

KELLY: Really?

MCCLURE: Yes.

KELLY: Results in by 9 p.m. But on November 3, they are bracing for a tsunami - a hundred thousand mail-in ballots in this county alone. Under current state law, counties cannot start confirming voter eligibility or start opening envelopes until the morning of Election Day. There is a push for the state legislature to change that in these next few weeks, a change which McClure, a Democrat, told me would make a big difference.

MCCLURE: Based on our experience from the primary, we just don't think it's physically possible to count the potential 100,000 mail-in ballots that day.

KELLY: Now, McClure is talking about a delay of hours in reporting results. But it is worth injecting here - in other parts of Pennsylvania, there are still races from the June 2 primary where we don't yet have an official winner. So imagine a scenario where days, a week after the presidential election, votes are being counted, lawsuits are being filed and questions are being asked about the legitimacy of the election. This is a scenario being fed by the man trying to win reelection. The president has tweeted inaccurately about widespread mail-in ballot fraud and warned of a rigged 2020 election and that results could be delayed for months. I asked Lamont McClure if he's worried.

MCCLURE: We're not worried about fraud at all, and we're not worried about a rigged election in Northampton County. I would - I'm a Democrat. I'm going to be for Joe Biden. I'd die before I let this election be rigged.

KELLY: For the record, there is no proof that mail ballots have posed significant threat to election security. But public trust can be fragile. The perception of chaos can be as damaging and as polarizing as actual chaos. The local Democratic Party is already busy trying to manage expectations, pumping out the message on social media that it may take a while to know who won in Pennsylvania and the most important thing is to get an accurate count.

We've pulled up now to Bethlehem, one of the cities in Northampton County, making our way down Main Street, which is so pretty - old, historic brick sidewalks, benches out, people sitting on them, eating ice cream.

We walked up and down Main Street, talking with people for a while. We'd arranged to meet Samuel Chen, GOP staffer-turned-consultant. He used to work for former Republican Governor John Kasich, former Republican Congressman Charlie Dent and others.

SAMUEL CHEN: I consider myself an undecided Republican voter who, in the moment, is leaning toward Vice President Biden.

KELLY: Chen grew up near here. Over iced coffees, we talked about the region's reputation as a bellwether for the rest of the state and Pennsylvania's outsized role in the national outcome.

CHEN: I think the election swings on people like me and on these undecideds because we know how Texas is going to go. We know how California is going to go. We're looking at a handful of states and a handful of voters in those states.

KELLY: Chen communicated something I sensed from other people we interviewed here - the weight of responsibility they feel for making sure Pennsylvania doesn't blow it on November 3.

CHEN: Now you have the mail-in issue. There is a lot of concern among election officials, Republican and Democrat, of making sure we get this right. How do we make sure we don't call it too early and have to retract it? But how do we make sure we're not a month afterwards and the whole country is saying, hey, Pennsylvania, do you have election result yet? - especially if it swings on this state.

KELLY: The worst-case scenario, Sam Chen says - what happened in Florida in 2000 but updated for the Twitter era and unfolding during a pandemic. For those who need a refresher, in 2000 - Bush versus Gore - Americans waited 36 days to learn who'd won.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: NPR host Mary Louise Kelly. Additional reporting in this episode from our colleagues at All Things Considered and from NPR's Pam Fessler and Miles Parks. For more news, download the NPR One app or listen to your local public radio station. Supporting that station is what makes this podcast possible, so do it and we thank you.

We'll be back with more tomorrow. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.