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Explainer: What is early, mail-in vote and when will ballots be counted?

  • Published at 08:06 pm October 27th, 2020
Explainer_How to count Early and Mail-in Votes (1)
People fill out ballots at a polling station located at the McFaul Activity Center in Bel Air, Harford County, during early voting in Maryland on October 27, 2020 Reuters

Voter turnout for the November 3 polls could be the highest in a century

Nearly 62 million US citizens have cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election with seven days to go, a record-breaking pace that could lead to the highest voter turnout in over a century, according to data from the US Elections Project.

This year, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans have multiple options for casting ballots - from voting early in-person to dropping ballots in the mail, and of course, voting in person on the election day on November 3.  

In 2016, about 139 million Americans voted, 33 million of them by mail. This year, researchers project that the turnout could top 150 million, with possibly half of it mail-in votes.

According to a survey by NBC News/Target Smart, the number of early votes will reach 90 to 100 million this time.

Absentee voting

Every US state allows mail-in, absentee voting, but typically only under certain circumstances. For example, in the past, many states only allowed voters to get an absentee ballot if they were deployed with the US armed forces, were going to be out of town on election day or were ill. 

Amid the pandemic, however, at least 35 states have changed their mail-in absentee voting policies, allowing all voters to apply for an absentee ballot to cut down on the risk of spreading the virus.

Mail-in voting

The terms absentee voting and mail-in voting are often used interchangeably. However, some election officials have started using the term “mail-in ballots” or “vote by mail,” because they are expanding absentee ballot eligibility during the pandemic to include people who are not actually absent from their precinct at the time of voting. 

In a number of states, including California, Delaware and Illinois, ballots will automatically be mailed to every eligible voter without request or application needed, so some election officials are using the terms “all-mail voting” or “universal vote by mail.” 

Early voting

Most states allow voters to cast a ballot in person during a designated time before election day. Early voting could begin as early as 45 days before an election, or as late as the week before. 

The goal is usually to increase voter turnout and decrease congestion at the polls on election day. 

Online voting

Voting online is a legal way to cast ballots in the US, through a ballot that appears on a web browser, for example. This method poses privacy risks and security vulnerabilities, but for some Americans, it also presents one of the only ways they can vote.

Counting ballots

In-person votes are tabulated automatically, and in most cases are ready to announce within hours or even minutes of polls closing. But mailed ballots involve a laborious process and each state again has its own rules.

Some states will only count mailed ballots that arrive by election day; others will accept them up to 10 days later if they are postmarked by election day.

Because of the burden on the US postal service, some states have lengthened the period they will accept ballots.

Upon receiving completed absentee or mail-in ballots, election officials must first process the ballots before they can be counted. 

Processing generally entails verifying voter signatures and physically preparing ballots for tabulation. The process for verifying signatures, opening envelopes, and removing and then counting the ballots differs from state to state. 

Counting entails the actual tabulation of votes and processing ballots through tallying machines. 

Thirteen states, including Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and North Carolina, allow for mail-in counting to begin before election day.

In another six states, statutes either do not specify when ballot counting can begin or leave the decision to the discretion of local election officials.

The remaining states and the District of Columbia allow ballot counting to begin either during the election day or after polls close. 

In Colorado, for example, ballots are opened on receipt. Counting - handled by machine - begins 15 days before the election, but data cannot be revealed until 7pm on election day.

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