Voting by mail: 9 states send ballots automatically, 35 allow COVID-19 as an excuse, 6 require other reason

The 2020 election is shaping up to be unlike any other, as election officials find ways to ensure voters’ ballots are counted despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19. 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, voting by mail likely seems to many voters like the safest method to cast their ballot. States have made the option widely available — only six now require voters to provide an excuse beyond fear of COVID-19 when requesting a ballot by mail — and some three in four Americans are expected to embrace the option for the Nov. 3 presidential election, up from one in four in the 2018 contest.

But running a vote-by-mail election is surprisingly complicated. Validating and counting a deluge of posted ballots in an open and accountable way presents a major challenge, one that only about a half dozen states are fully prepared for.

Making matters more confusing are the varying policies for each state when it comes to requesting and receiving a ballot. 

And not all states are equal when it comes to letting voters fix mistakes that lead to rejection of their ballots, such as failure to sign the mail-in envelope. In a New Jersey special election in May, a whopping 10% of mailed ballots were rejected.

So what happens if you need a voter registration form or absentee ballot application and all the normal places are closed or open by appointment only? It’s a problem that is occurring nationwide. 

RELATED: Election officials, experts and USPS urging voters not to wait until state deadlines to mail in ballots

The most recent American Library Association survey found that 62% of U.S. libraries, which are sources for voting documents, were fully closed, while another 26% were offering only curbside service. Likewise, the vast majority of state motor vehicle departments — the largest source of voter registrations nationally and of the voter IDs needed in some states — are operating on limited hours, at reduced capacity or by appointment only, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

The USPS has already warned in a series of letters to 46 states and Washington, D.C., that it may not be able to handle the surge in mail ballots for the upcoming election due to a high demand in service from voters afraid to venture into public polling centers due to the pandemic. 

In response to the expected demand, the USPS said in a May press release, “To account for delivery standards and to allow for contingencies (e.g., weather issues or unforeseen events), voters should mail their return ballots at least 1 week prior to the due date established by state law.”

Since every state allows some form of mail voting, it is important to know the rules and to be aware of what you may have to do in order to receive a mail-in ballot.

These 9 states and D.C. send ballots ahead of the election automatically to registered voters

  • Vermont
  • Nevada
  • District of Columbia
  • California
  • New Jersey
  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Oregon

Five of those states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — already held elections by mail even before the COVID-19 outbreak. California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont and the District have all opted to proactively send ballots to voters this year in response to COVID-19.

Oregon, Colorado and Washington have held successful all-mail elections for years, and other states, including Florida and California, expanded their vote-by-mail capacity before the pandemic. Nearly everywhere else, the technical and logistical challenges loom large for budget-squeezed election officials with limited experience.

RELATED: 'Absentee' vs 'mail-in': Experts say terms vary by state, but all ballots receive same level of scrutiny

Trump has repeated the unfounded claim that “universal mail voting” could corrupt the election. But top election officials and research on the subject have found that incidents of voter fraud are “very, very low.”

These 35 states will allow voters to cite the coronavirus as an excuse to vote absentee

  • Montana
  • Alaska
  • Idaho
  • Arizona
  • Wyoming
  • New York
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Minnesota
  • Iowa
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Wisconsin
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Ohio
  • Kentucky
  • Alabama
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia
  • Virginia
  • North Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Florida
  • Maine
  • New Hampshire
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • Connecticut

These 6 states require some excuse other than COVID-19 to request an absentee ballot

  • Texas
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Tennessee
  • Indiana
  • South Carolina

How mail-in ballots can be rejected

Once a completed ballot arrives at a local election office, the voter’s eligibility and identity must be verified. Sometimes, missing signatures or unsealed or damaged envelopes can gum up the process.

In Jefferson County, Kentucky, the state’s largest, 3,848 absentee ballots were rejected in the June primary due to lack of a voter signature. That was out of roughly 180,000 absentee ballots cast. Not all states give voters a quick and easy way to fix problems.

Veteran vote-by-mail states send out periodic mailers to verify voter addresses and get updated signatures. They also have built “ballot-curing” measures into existing systems in case voter signatures don’t match what’s on record or ballot envelopes arrive damaged or missing required information. But such systems are far from universal and their absence has led to lawsuits in some states.

The complexity of signature matching is a major issue. Many election offices register voter signatures from a variety of sources — for instance, those scribbled with styluses on cramped touchscreens at motor vehicle departments. The result: A matching process prone to human error.

“It’s terrible, but it’s the best option we have,” said Jennifer Morrell, a former elections official in Colorado and Utah. Rigorous training and bipartisan teams reviewing signatures can help mitigate some of the concerns, but people’s signatures change over time and physical ledgers capturing these changes are an endangered species.

But the bigger risk is that first-time and minority voters — who more often vote Democratic — will have their signatures rejected, studies show.

University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith found that Black and Latino voters and those under age 30 in the state were at least twice as likely as older and White voters to have ballots rejected over signature mismatches.

Regardless of where you live, vote early

In general, voting by mail is much less forgiving than the in-person method, where a voter’s identity is verified on the spot and any difficulties can be handled by poll workers.

To ensure success, all the pieces of mail-in balloting systems have to be in place well before Election Day. That’s because processing absentee ballots is a complex, multi-step process in most states: Voter fills out application, mails it to local election office; local election office verifies voter’s eligibility, sends back ballot; voter completes ballot, signs envelope, returns it. Election office verifies ballot’s authenticity, counts it.

“The more complicated we make the ballot-casting process, the more stuff is going to go wrong,” said Wisconsin activist Karen McKim. Election management in Wisconsin is as decentralized as it gets, relying as it does on 72 county clerks, 1,850 municipal clerks and thousands of poll workers. McKim says it’s “unrealistic and unfair” to expect those workers to be ready for a flood of absentee ballots in just a few months.

Kelly Taylor Hayes and the Associated Press contributed to this story.