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States Mull Rule Changes To Make Sure Mail-In Ballots Are Counted


There's all this worry about whether people who are going to vote by mail will be able to get their ballots in on time given cuts to the Postal Service. So some states are changing the rules. They say they'll let ballots be counted even if they're not in until after Election Day as long as they're postmarked by Election Day, but those plans are being challenged in court. NPR's Pam Fessler covers elections. She's with us now. Good morning, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What are the rules for getting a ballot in on time and having it count?

FESSLER: Well, they vary all over the place, but most states say that an absentee ballot has to be received by Election Day to count. But about 18 will count your ballot as long as it's postmarked by Election Day or the day before. Those ballots also have to be received within a few days of the election to count, although California will count ballots received up to 17 days after the election. But there's a problem, and that's that some absentee ballots arrive without a postmark for a whole variety of reasons. And that's caused some confusion.

KING: Right. So how do election officials know whether those ballots were in the mail by Election Day and whether they should count?

FESSLER: Well, it's not always clear. It was a problem this year in Wisconsin's primary. The Supreme Court ruled that ballots could be counted if postmarked by Election Day and received within five days. But then local clerks started seeing that hundreds of ballots didn't have postmarks, and they didn't know what to do. So it was finally decided they could count ballots if it seemed, quote, "more likely than not" that they had been mailed on time. So that was pretty subjective.

We had a similar problem in New York, where a federal judge ruled after the primary that thousands of ballots that had been already rejected because they didn't have postmarks should be counted instead, and President Trump cites this as one reason he thinks widespread mail-in voting in November could be a mess. So now we have states trying to clarify their rules. Pennsylvania election officials have asked the state Supreme Court if they can count ballots without a postmark as long as they're received within a few days, and Nevada and Virginia have adopted similar rules.

KING: But does all of this raise worries that someone could mail their ballot after the polls close, and it would still be counted?

FESSLER: Well, that's certainly what Republicans are claiming. They already have filed suit against Nevada's new law, saying Democrats are trying to rig the election, that people could see who was ahead on election night and then rush to mail ballots the next day to try and change the outcome. But election officials say this is really far-fetched. And I spoke with Tammy Patrick, a former Arizona election official now with the Democracy Fund, and she's been a liaison between the Postal Service and election officials.

TAMMY PATRICK: That's just, quite frankly, a little bit crazy because you would have to be able to know for sure that none of them would be postmarked, and there's no action that a voter can take to prevent something from being postmarked.

FESSLER: And, Noel, Democrats are defending these rules, saying it's not fair for a voter to have their ballot rejected if they mailed it in on time but, through no fault of their own, it didn't get a postmark. But I expect to see a lot more litigation on this issue.

KING: Just really quickly, is there anything else being done to make sure people's ballots count?

FESSLER: Well, a lot of states are now requiring bar codes on their mail-in ballots, so that should help. And election officials are also recommending that if voters are worried, they can go to the post office and have their ballots postmarked by hand. Or, better yet, they should try to get their ballots in as soon as possible so they don't have to worry about these deadlines.

KING: NPR's Pam Fessler. Thanks so much, Pam.

FESSLER: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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