JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Juana Summers from the NPR Politics team.
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SUMMERS: The coronavirus has drastically changed all aspects of American life. It turned our economy and education systems upside down. And in November, it'll change our democracy. Voting is going to look different this year than it ever has before.
Four years ago, more voters chose to vote by mail than in any presidential election ever before, with about a quarter of voters choosing to vote that way. This year, experts are expecting that number to at least double, with as many as 60 or 70% of all ballots being vote-by-mail or absentee ballots. That means there's a gap here. There are a lot of voters who have never voted by mail before but who are going to want to this year for health reasons. And there will also be a lot of new voters who are participating in this process for the first time. We want to help, so this episode of LIFE KIT - how to vote by mail.
Joining us now is NPR's voting reporter Miles Parks. Hey, Miles.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.
SUMMERS: So I want to start really broad. How is this election going to look different than a normal election? Let's think, for example, maybe the 2018 midterms.
PARKS: Not to be overly dramatic, but this election is going to be different than just about any election we've ever had in American history. I mean, states are going to have to change everything about how we vote to accommodate the coronavirus. Even when you just think about in-person polling places, you think about the masks that precinct officers are going to have to wear and the separation that they're going to need to be putting in for people who are waiting in line, all of that is going to contribute to a different look for voting in November.
But the biggest difference, honestly, is with mail voting. There are states where less than 10% of the voters voted by mail in just the 2018 midterms. And those states are going to ramp it up this quickly to have, you know, maybe half of their voters voting by mail this election. Those are the sorts of kind of shifts and increases in the mail voting that we saw in the primaries that experts are expecting to have happen again in November.
SUMMERS: Miles, I reported on a poll a couple of weeks ago. And it found that more than half of people under the age of 35 say they don't have the knowledge or the resources to know how to vote by mail. How hard is this?
PARKS: Yeah. So here's where I make the most important caveat of all - voting is local. It's different everywhere, every county and state. So how hard it is to vote by mail is also going to be different everywhere. But overall, it's going to be easier than ever before. States are relaxing restrictions on who's eligible to do it. They're spending money on sending ballot request forms to all voters in some states. And in others - California specifically, which is the state with the most voters in the country - they're going to be sending a ballot out to all registered voters. Still, there's no question; voting by mail is going to be new to a lot of voters.
SUMMERS: OK, so say a voter has never voted by mail before and they're feeling a little defeated by this whole process. What is a good mindset for them to have when they start out?
PARKS: I talked to Amber McReynolds, who's been helping a lot of these states adjust to this new reality. She's a former election official from Colorado, and she now runs an organization called the National Vote At Home Institute, which advocates for easier access to mail ballots.
AMBER MCREYNOLDS: In a lot of ways, I feel like my entire career has sort of been designed to prepare for this.
PARKS: She said to think of it like shopping online. You may need to do some logistics, fill out some forms, but if you compare it to waiting in line at a polling place, you know, during a pandemic, it may still seem a lot easier.
SUMMERS: OK. So let's say that I want to vote by mail in November. Where do I get started?
PARKS: So the nice part about this, Juana, is that it doesn't matter whether you want to vote in person or whether you want to vote by mail, step one is the same. You need to get registered. You cannot vote in any way without being on the rolls first. So you want to start by going to your local elections website. And you might be thinking, well, how do I find that? You can either Google it - literally just Google whatever county you're in and elections, and Google will pop up your local elections website - but what I like recommending to people is a website called vote.org, which is this nonpartisan clearinghouse, basically, for voting information where if you go to vote.org, you can just go through a dropdown. Just tell the website what state you're in and what county you're in, and it will send you to the right place. It will direct you to the official source of information.
Obviously, we're in a time of misinformation. It's talked about all the time. People really need to be focused on getting to the official source of voting information because there is so much bad information out there.
SUMMERS: Absolutely. So now that I'm registered, what do I do next?
PARKS: So the next step is actually requesting the absentee ballot. The vast majority of voters in the U.S. are in states that do not need an excuse to do this. Either in any normal election, they can do it without an excuse or because of the coronavirus, a lot of states have relaxed the need for an excuse to request an absentee ballot. If you're in one of those states where if you go online and check and it says you don't need an excuse, you just make your request. Most of the time, it's as simple as literally just filling out a form online. Occasionally, you may have to send an email to your local election official or fill out a form, but those are pretty rare. Most of the time, you can do it online.
What's interesting, though, is even if you're in one of those few states that still does require an excuse to vote by mail, Amber McReynolds told me that that still should not stop you from trying to vote by mail. A lot of people in those states do qualify to vote by mail using the excuse, but they just don't realize it. So even if you're in one of those excuse states and you're thinking, well, I have to go vote in person because my state doesn't allow me to without an excuse, you should still go check the website and see if you qualify.
SUMMERS: So, Miles, I know that a few states are all-mail-election states already. If you're a voter in those states, do you need to do anything extra?
PARKS: Yeah. So in those states, you still don't want to get complacent, though. What it means in a universal mail-ballot state is that if you are a registered voter, the state will just automatically - your local election official, I should say, will just automatically mail you a ballot. But it's really important that your local election official has your correct address. You need to be thinking, since the last election or since the last time I interacted with my elections office, have I moved? Or the last time I did this, was there a problem with my mail ballot?
Either way, even if there wasn't, the one thing that you should do in those states is still make sure. Check your registration, and make sure your address is correct. You can do this online. Again, vote.org is a great place to start. It'll send you to the right - it'll kind of start the process. And within a second, you'll be at the right website. You could just put in your information, check your address is correct, and that'll get you set up. Even if you're in an all-mail state, you should still do this.
SUMMERS: How soon should voters be starting this process?
PARKS: Honestly, as early as you're listening to this right now. Like, when you're done - when you get done listening, maybe potentially even do it on your phone. McReynolds told me that the closer it gets to Election Day - you remember, she's a former election official - the closer you get to Election Day, the people who are in charge of these elections are starting to become overwhelmed by paperwork. So it makes it a lot easier on them if they're getting these requests earlier. And it's - also, she said that you're helping yourself. Here's what she said.
MCREYNOLDS: Making that request now - and in most states, you can request it now. So like, Florida, Michigan, you can sign up now. And by doing that, you're going to alleviate some of the stress off of election officials later on. But that also means that your ballot is going to get shipped out to you in the first batch, meaning when they prepare all the ballots to go out, it'll be one of the first, you know, ballots to go out. And therefore, you'll get it a lot sooner in the process.
PARKS: She says to think of National Voter Registration Day, which is September 22, as the sort of drop-dead date that voters need to be signed up for a mail ballot. You should do it sooner than that ideally, but the end of September is really when you've got to make sure you have that paperwork done to make sure you get your ballot on time.
SUMMERS: OK. So a voter's registered. They have signed up. Let's fast-forward a little bit to late September or October. They receive that ballot in the mail. Can you talk us through filling it out?
PARKS: Sure. So there are two big things that can slip up voters and potentially make it so either your ballot doesn't get counted or makes it so your election official has to contact you. You have to go back and forth. Nobody wants that. No. 1 thing to watch out for - just fill it out correctly, exactly how it says because the scanners that election officials have can only read it if it's filled out correctly. It can really screw up whether your ballot gets counted if you fill it out incorrectly. Here's how Amber McReynolds put it.
MCREYNOLDS: Fill in the oval. If it says fill in the oval, fill in the oval. Like, don't circle the oval. Don't circle the name, you know? And that - we see a lot of that happen.
PARKS: So it seems simple, but just do exactly what they say. If it says fill in the oval, fill in the oval. The second thing is signatures. This is on the outside of the ballot on the outer envelope, not actually usually on the ballot. And a lot of people accidentally send back their ballot without signing for it because it's on a different piece of paper. An election official can't count it in that case. Make sure you sign that envelope. And even when you're signing it, take an extra second and think, how did I sign when I was at the DMV? You know, the first time that the election office got my signature, how did it look because those election officials, to make sure it's actually you sending back that ballot, are going to compare the signature on that ballot to the signature you gave in that time. As McReynolds says, don't use your grocery-store signature. Use your kind of official signature to make sure that ballot ends up getting counted.
I think both of these things - between the signatures and between filling it out correctly - just come back to the same idea of following instructions. You know, the whole - one of the biggest benefits of vote-by-mail is you're doing this in the comfort of your house, ideally, with a little bit of extra time. Use that extra time. Don't rush through it. Read all the instructions. Sign it where it says sign it, and you'll be fine.
SUMMERS: All right, so we're going to make sure to follow instructions. But what about actually sending your ballot in? Is there anything that we need to know about mailing it?
PARKS: The biggest thing is just do this part early as well. Don't fill it out and then let it sit on the kitchen counter or the table and keep thinking, oh, I got to do that, I got to do that. Right when you finish filling it out and signing it, you should make sure you give the post office time to get to your election official.
Now, the other thing to think about here is that a lot of jurisdictions have this cool ballot-tracking thing where it's kind of like Amazon, where you can go online and actually follow your ballot from the moment that you send it out to the moment it gets to your election official. So you should also check online and see if your jurisdiction offers this ballot tracking so once you mail it out, you can actually check and make sure it got there on time and that they've received it.
SUMMERS: Now, I know a lot of officials and voters are really worried about the state of the U.S. Postal Service. Are there options if a voter is worried about participating in person, but they also might not feel comfortable relying on the post office to submit their ballot?
PARKS: Yeah. I think this is something that a lot of voters don't know is that in vote-by-mail systems, there is this other option that doesn't involve mailing your ballot back because there are - I mean, a lot of people are worried that the post office is just going to be overwhelmed with ballots this October and early November. The thing that a lot of jurisdictions offer is basically ballot drop-off, either in designated drop boxes - you should check whether your jurisdiction has those - but a lot of jurisdictions actually allow you to drop it off either at a precinct, like a polling place, either early voting or day of Election Day. Voting centers, you can potentially drop it off there, or you can just drive it to or walk it to your local election official's office. If you get your ballot and you fill it out and you don't want to rely on the post office to get it back to the election official to make sure your vote counts, you should check whether you can drop it off. A lot of places, you can, and it kind of takes one less variable out of the system.
SUMMERS: All right. So once you've voted, at that point, is there anything else that you need to do?
PARKS: I would say think about helping a friend or somebody you know who, you know, maybe has mentioned that they're intimidated by the process or haven't voted before. This is something that when I talk to people, it just sounds like a lot of work. Election officials say it isn't, but we know that voting is kind of habitual. If you if you do it once, you're much more likely to do it again.
So once you've figured out this system - and especially if you're in a place that in 2016 or 2018 didn't have a high number of vote-by-mail ballots cast - think about helping a friend or think about posting on social media that you just did this and you're willing to kind of help out because there are going to be a lot of people in that position that either don't know what to do or are intimidated by it. You could really be helpful there.
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SUMMERS: All right, Miles, you have walked us through all of the details. Recap it for us. What do we need to take away from this?
PARKS: Sure thing. So step No. 1 is voter registration. This is whether you're going to vote in person, whether you're going to vote by mail, first step is get registered. After you've done that, you've got to request your mail ballot. Most of the time, you can do this online. You may need to provide an excuse, but you make that request. Once you get that mail ballot in the mail, you want to spend a couple minutes, take your time, make sure you fill it out correctly, and sign it.
And then, you're going to think about how you're going to turn it in. This is either you're going to mail it early - again, give the post office at least a week to get it to your election official - or you're going to think about dropping it off in a secure drop box or at a precinct station. And then after that, you voted, think about how you can help somebody else figure this process out. You've got a handle on it. You know, you may want to post on social media that you've done it and that you maybe can help a friend.
SUMMERS: Thanks so much, Miles.
PARKS: Yeah, absolutely, Juana. Thanks for having me.
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SUMMERS: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have an episode on how to run for office and another one on how to spot misinformation, plus tons of other episodes on parenting, personal finance and health. You can find all of those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. Also, we want to hear your tips. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Clare Schneider. Meghan Keane is our managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Juana Summers. Thanks for listening.
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