How safe are your election ballots? Here's what you need to know
Virginia Goldberg of Montgomery County, Pa., was willing to wait for her election ballot to show up in the mail.
She doesn't feel safe going to the polls this year because of health concerns and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is hopeful the absentee ballot system is going to work.
"I wish people would not give into the fear mongering and do what is best for them — and democracy," she said.
Goldberg is far from alone, both in her hopes of a fair election count and in casting her ballot through the mail.
Election boards across states vow they are taking steps to ensure all votes are accurately counted, pointing to laws and regulations they must follow.
But this year is, of course, more complicated than most: It is a presidential election year and more people will be voting by mail than ever before due to the pandemic.
Elections officials will also have to beat back claims, even from President Donald Trump himself, that the votes will be compromised.
"This is a time when we're going to see our systems put to the test, both in terms of the logistical capacity and in terms of the messaging and what information gets out there," said Michael Hanmer, research director for the University of Maryland College Park's Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement.
A review by the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group found a mix of protocols being taken by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware to deal with the surge in mail-in voting.
That includes ensuring drop boxes are secure, allowing voters who make mistakes to quickly fix them so their votes count and doing an expedient count of absentee ballots before and/or after Election Day to limit any prolonged uncertainty over the results.
"People should rest assured that there are safeguards in place," said Kristen Zebrowski Stavisky, the Democratic elections commissioner in Rockland County, N.Y.
Here's a look at how states will keep ballots safe this election year:
What ballots will be counted and when?
There is reason to be careful with your mail-in ballots.
While complaints by Trump that mail-in balloting is rigged have been largely unfounded, USA TODAY predicted that if half of the country were to vote by mail this year, it could lead to 1 million votes being rejected or discarded for a variety of mistakes.
Those are the same issues that local election boards are hoping to guard against.
And there have been some hiccups.
In Luzerne County, Pa., a temporary worker recently tossed some military and overseas ballots into the trash. A federal investigation is ongoing, but Pennsylvania Department of State officials say it appears to have been "a bad error" — not intentional fraud.
In New York, a Rochester printer sent out 100,000 absentee ballots mainly to New York City that some had incorrect names on return envelopes. It had to send out a whole new batch.
But experts said those mishaps are small and shouldn't impact voters' confidence in the election system.
"On the whole, I think Pennsylvanians can have confidence that their vote will count, but also to be aware that they have to follow the procedures, be knowledgeable about those procedures and follow those procedures," said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa.
In Pennsylvania, a key battleground, nearly 3 million mail-in ballots are expected to be cast for Nov. 3, said Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College.
However, a recent F&M poll showed the majority of voters — nearly 60% — are still expected to head to the polls.
So the election has multi-faceted challenges: Election officials have to make sure there is enough staff to handle in-person voting and enough to handle the swarm of absentee ballots flooding their mailboxes.
Election commissioners said it's a problem they have dealt with before: It's just a super-sized version this year.
While states moved to no excuse mail-in voting due to COVID, it's essentially a carbon copy of the previous absentee ballot process, said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
"We've been technically doing mail-in balloting for decades," she said.
In Maryland, ballot counting takes place in a secure room, and the ballot-scanning machines are shut down and sealed to prevent tampering after each day of canvassing.
David Garreis, the president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, said election results will only be accessible to a small number of workers and will be stored electronically in the voting machines, which are sealed.
"A big part of it is we try to keep access limited to the people who need it," Garreis said.
In Lebanon County, Pa., ballots are sorted by district and locked in a vault, election director Michael Anderson said.
Even the cleaning personnel cannot go in.
How will votes be kept secure
Nineteen states allow election officials to notify voters if problems occur with their ballots and offer an opportunity to fix them, according to Votingrightslab.org.
In New York, a legal settlement this year between the state Board of Elections and the League of Women Voters requires counties to allow voters to fix certain mistakes before ballots are counted.
"If there's an issue with your signature or you didn't seal your inner envelope or if you forgot to sign, those are all now curable issues in New York state," said Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters' New York chapter.
In New Jersey, if a ballot is found to be defective, such as a voter not signing the certification sheet on the front of the ballot, election officials must notify the voter of the error and send them another ballot to fill out.
In Pennsylvania, though, "naked ballots" — those without the secrecy envelope returned — will not be counted, the state Supreme Court recently ruled.
Additionally, 47 states and the District of Columbia have online portals that allow voters to track the status of their ballots, which will help with transparency to ensure votes are counted, according to an analysis by the National Vote at Home Institute.
Some states, though, admit they are entering a system they are not used to.
In Delaware, this will be the first election where all registered voters will be able to vote from home after state lawmakers in June passed a measure allowing for universal mail-in voting for the 2020 elections.
"You’re going from having a very small percentage of your ballots being cast either absentee or vote by mail, and having to switch very quickly to many, many more being able to be cast that way," Delaware elections commissioner Anthony Albence said.
New Jerseyans will vote almost entirely by mail for the first time in a general election.
Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order in August that required the general election to be conducted largely by mail-in ballot, and the state set up drop boxes to place them.
How will mail-in votes be logged?
There are systems in place to track the mail-in votes.
Each ballot in Delaware, like in many other states, will have a unique tracking number that helps elections departments see when the ballot has been sent out and returned to prevent double-voting.
So if a voter submits a mail-in ballot and then tries to vote in person, elections officials will spot that an absentee ballot has already been filed.
Some states will toss the mail-in ballot in that case and let the person vote in-person. Others will not allow a vote in-person if their mail-in ballot was already returned.
In Delaware, the tracking number system allows voters who received mail-in ballots but find themselves second-guessing the mail-in process to still vote in person before returning their ballot.
Those voters could go to their assigned polling place, where poll workers would contact the county's elections office and void the mail-in ballot so that the voter can vote at the polls.
New Jersey election officials have several safeguards in place to prevent people from voting more than once.
A statewide voter registration system tracks when a ballot has been submitted by a voter and would prevent a second ballot from that voter from being counted.
Additionally, it is a crime to vote more than once in an election. Doing so in New Jersey is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
Results won’t be leaked before Election Day, officials say, because they're not supposed to be officially counted until after the polls close.
"Ballots may be prepared and scanned, but no totals are ever calculated before close of polls," Albence said.
Once ballots arrive at elections offices in Delaware, they are put into sealed, "tamper-evident" bags. Other states said they are required to take similar precautions.
In Maryland, under a new state rule, local officials were allowed to begin counting absentee ballots at the start of October by scanning ballots and logging them into a computer before Nov. 3 to avoid an unmanageable deluge on the final night.
But states with early counting won't know results until after polls close, said Howard Sholl, deputy director of the New Castle elections office in Delaware.
"Whatever the choices are that are on the ballot are still not visible to us," Sholl said. "We can physically see what’s on the ballot, but it’s not accumulated in a way that we can see them. It’s buried in the software of the system."
When will absentee ballots be counted?
While some states have already started counting absentees, others open the envelopes to make sure they are done properly, but do not count them yet.
In New York, each county handles the counting of absentees on their own, but days after Election Day.
Counties have to notify candidates and party leaders that the process is starting so they can watch. And that can't happen until all the ballots are deemed valid to ensure no one has attempted to vote more than once.
This year, the validation process has to be finished by Nov. 6, and then ballots could start to be counted. But New York is also allowing ballots to come in until 10 days after the election, so long as they are postmarked by Nov 3.
So that may slow the final results.
In Monroe County, which is home to the city of Rochester, elections officials will not start counting absentee ballots until Nov. 16, giving them time to reconcile in-person votes with the absentees to ensure no duplicates.
Jack Denning thinks he's either going to vote in person or deliver his ballot to a drop box.
The 51-year-old Baltimore barber is worried that his ballot might get lost if he sends it through the mail.
In Maryland's June primary, Denning used a drop box. It felt secure, he said, because he knew his ballot was going straight into the hands of election officials. He also didn't have to wait in line at a polling place.
"I think I prefer that," Denning said of using a drop box, "because I'm more of a last-minute person."
Includes reporting by USA TODAY staff writers Karina Zaiets and Javier Zarracina.
Joseph Spector is the New York state editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany.
Teresa Boeckel is a staff writer for the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @teresaboeckel.
Sarah Gamard is a state government reporter for the News Journal in Delaware. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at @SarahGamard
Madeleine O'Neill covers the Maryland State House for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @maddioneill.
Susanna Cervenka is a staff writer for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @scervenka
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