by Randall K. Gaylord
San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney
Voters can vote by mail with confidence in the 2020 election. Voting by mail is easy, popular, improves voter turnout, and is accompanied by safeguards to assure each person’s vote is counted just once with a ballot that protects the secrecy of the selections for each race.
All voters must take it upon themselves to know the local rules to assure that their ballot is counted. Today, many of us get our news from national or regional news sources that may not provide the details of local election rules. The rules and procedures concerning elections are determined state-by-state and in some places, county by county – even when the election is for a federal office. Regardless of where you live, you will want to make sure your vote is counted by following these four steps.Register to vote. To vote, you must first be registered to vote. Register where you live, not where you work. If you have moved since the last time you voted, even if it is across the street, update your registration. Registration has a deadline that varies by state and is fast approaching in many states. Know the deadline and submit your registration well in advance. In Washington State, everyone who is registered will receive a mail in ballot. Other jurisdictions may require an additional step to request a ballot by mail.
When possible, submit your ballot before election day. The most common reason mail-in ballots are rejected is because voters submit them too late. Why does that happen? Because voters believe that submitting the ballot to a post office box on election day is always timely, but that is not the case. In San Juan County, Washington different post office locations close at different times; some as early as 2:30 p.m., yet the polls close at 8:00 p.m. Mail delivered to the post office after closing on election day will be postmarked the next day or later, and then rejected during the step of checking each postmark. Some states require that your ballot be received before the election day deadlines. Know the rules in your state. If voters choose to wait until election day it is best to use a secure drop box or deliver the ballot to an election office. Use the postal system only if time permits, and find and use a secure drop box on election day to assure your ballot is delivered on time.
Sign your ballot envelope correctly by using the same signature that is on file. The second most common reason mail-in ballots are rejected is that the voter used a signature that does not match the one on file, or simply forgot to sign the outer envelope. This signature check is made of every ballot and is an important step to make sure people vote their own ballot, and not the ballot of another. Every signature is compared to the signature on file for that voter. Your signature may have changed over the years, and if so, update your signature with the county officials handling registration.
Follow the instructions exactly for completing the ballot and making corrections. Sometimes, votes are not counted because a voter did not fill in the ballot correctly, voted for two persons, or changed their mind, but did not show that intent as instructed. When this occurs at a polling place, a poll worker will usually identify the error and it can be fixed on the spot. That’s not an option in a mail-in election. Follow exactly the instructions for completing the ballot.
The procedures used by election officials at the polls and for mail-in elections have been adopted after rigorous testing and with bi-partisan review and observation at each major step of the process. Mail-in elections include a daily audit of ballot totals without looking at how any ballot was voted. The large scale is helped with automation that occurs at the steps of ballot assembly and signature check. Ballots are separated from the outer envelope with sleeves intact to protect the secrecy of the vote. Trained election workers are ready to use these safeguards and others for a transparent election process that provides an accurate count in every race.
Another feature of voting by mail is that voters are completing their ballots over a three-week period— from the date ballots are mailed until election day. For the candidates in a mail-in election, this presents a very different approach to campaigning, and requires them to have the key information about themselves and their opponent in the hands of the voters as soon as the ballots arrive at your home.
Those of us who have been voting by mail have learned that not all ballot envelopes will have been checked, opened, and the ballots processed at 8:00 pm on election night. In Washington, we plan for the “election week,” not election night. Past experience has shown that the late-arriving mail-in ballots are voted in about the same pattern as the earlier ballots, give or take one or two percent. The conventional wisdom for candidates is to adopt a strategy to win by a margin that can withstand minor change in ballot counts after election night.
The election officials in San Juan County are planning for a ninety percent (90%) turnout in our vote-by-mail election. It is my sincere desire that every one of the ballots is received or postmarked on time, and filled out correctly with signatures that match. Let’s all do our part to have each vote counted.