When the United States Postal Service warned 46 states and the District of Columbia last month that their vote-by-mail deadlines risked disenfranchising voters, some election officials saw it as a call to action.
But, election experts told TPM, with just three months to go and many state legislatures out of session for the rest of the year, there’s not much election officials can actually do now except send a clear, urgent message to voters: Get your ballots early.
The mail slow-down that has been documented in recent weeks, and President Donald Trump’s near daily attacks on the Postal Service, have put voters on edge. And despite Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s statement Tuesday that he was “suspending” certain cost-cutting initiatives, Democrats and former USPS officials have warned that DeJoy failed to make commitments about election mail, such as promising to allow mail carriers to make extra trips to collect ballots.
“As far as we can tell, this is more than just the appearance of a problem,” former Deputy Postmaster General told reporters after reading through DeJoy’s statement. “There is delayed mail across the system.”
Some election officials have sought the easy way out: In Louisiana, Secretary of State R. Kyle Ardoin (R) on Tuesday proposed dramatically limiting who can vote by mail to those who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, in addition to overseas voters and servicemembers. Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said that was a non-starter, rejecting the proposal and setting the stage for a potential court battle.
Notably — and more in line with election experts’ concerns about this election cycle — Ardoin also proposed pushing up the deadline to request a mail-in ballot to 10 days before Election Day, rather than the existing 4-day deadline, in order to ensure that ballots reach voters in time for them to be cast.
This has been an issue for years: In a 2016 report the Bipartisan Policy Center urged state legislators to “review statutory deadlines for ballot requests and returns to see if they conform to the new USPS delivery standards.” But four years later, states largely haven’t changed their ballot request deadlines to minimize potential disenfranchisement.
“Most states have a deadline well within the danger zone of the Postal Service delivery standard,” said Michael Thorning, one of the report’s authors. “That’s a longstanding problem that we should expect to be a problem in the fall.”
In Pennsylvania, which just a few months ago joined the ranks of states that don’t require an excuse to vote by mail, election officials are trying to push deadlines on the other end of the timeline, asking the state Supreme Court for permission to count ballots that arrive at election offices up to three days late as long as they were sent on time.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, most states require that mail-in ballots arrive on Election Day, but 19 have some provision for counting ballots arriving later than that as long as they are postmarked before or on the day itself.
And, like other states, Pennsylvania is seeking to use drop boxes and satellite locations for voters who fear their ballots won’t make it through the postal system in time — a plan that attracted a lawsuit from the Trump campaign.
Across the country, most states have tried to shore up their vote-by-mail procedures: In Rhode Island, the state agreed to a consent decree waiving mail-in voters’ usual responsibility to sign their ballot in front of a notary or two witnesses — a move that recently received the Supreme Court’s blessing. In Arizona, the secretary of state’s office bumped up the recommended deadline for mailing back ballots to seven days before Election Day.
Back To Basics: Communication Is Key
But states’ options remain limited this close to Election Day. For all the last minute bustle, experts told TPM, the most important thing state and local election officials can do now is provide clear communication to voters — and local postal officials.
Election authorities need to get in touch with postal officials to make plans that ensure crates of ballots aren’t missed in processing centers on election night, as crucial hours tick away. They also need to avoid New York’s fate, by emphasizing that even ballots sent through business class mail are postmarked, even though that’s not standard practice for other business mail.
Perhaps most crucially, though, voters need to hear — repeatedly — that they should request a mail-in ballot as early as possible. And if all else fails and they still have their ballot in-hand with just days before Election Day, they should consider dropping it off in-person — either at an election office, drop box, or another location according to local guidelines.
“There are two dates that, I would say, need to be clear,” Stroman, the former deputy postmaster general, told reporters Tuesday. “If you request your ballot no later than the 13th of October, and you return it by the 24th of October, your ballot’s going to get there.”
We need to support our local post offices & election administrators so they can deliver ballots smoothly this year. If you are planning to vote absentee, be sure to request your ballot & return it early. Help us flatten the ballot request curve.https://t.co/hSVd0Hi1HN pic.twitter.com/rGTsMIca2q
— Campaign Legal Center (@CampaignLegal) August 14, 2020
Communication is especially urgent in states with less vote-by-mail experience, Reed College professor Paul Gronke told TPM.
Gronke, director of Reed’s Early Voting Information Center, said less experienced states have historically had higher rates of rejected mail ballots. That means potentially disenfranchising thousands or millions of new voters, likely disproportionately impacting minority communities.
“Younger people, folks from disadvantaged communities — the pattern will almost certainly be the case where those are the communities where you have higher rejection rates,” he said.
And he offered a prediction to states that don’t proactively communicate election rules: “You’re going to look like you’re racist. You’re going to look like you are discriminating. And you’re going to get sued.”