1.    How does vote by mail work?

A few weeks before Election Day, the county clerk mails a ballot to every registered voter.

 

The ballot comes with instructions, a secrecy envelope, and a ballot return envelope.  The voter marks the ballot, encloses it in the secrecy envelope, encloses that envelope in the ballot return envelope, and signs the ballot return envelope.

 

Then, the voter has a choice:  mail the ballot  package back to the county clerk so that it will arrive by 7:30 p.m. on Election Day (postmarks don’t count) or deposit the ballot in an official ballot deposit box.  Secure ballot deposit boxes will be located throughout the county.


When the ballot is received by the clerk, the voter’s signature is verified against the signature in the voter’s registration record.  If the signature matches, the ballot is accepted for counting.  If the signature does not match, it is reviewed by two other officials and, if it still deemed a non-match, the voter is notified to cure the deficiency before Election Day.

2.    I’m concerned about fraud.  How can vote by mail be secure?

Many experts believe that vote by mail is more secure than voting by machines commonly used today.  Vote by mail uses paper ballots, which cannot be hacked.  Vote by mail is more secure than the electronic app used, and now discarded, for military and overseas voters in recent West Virginia elections.


Ballots mailed to voters cannot be forwarded to a different address.  Instead, they are returned to the clerk so that records can be updated.  This mechanism for keeping voter addresses up to date is lacking in our current system.


Del. Hansen’s bill includes many other protections against potential fraud in vote by mail.  Prohibited acts, with severe penalties for violations, include:
-    marking someone’s ballot or signing a ballot return envelope other than your own;
-    voting in the name of someone else or attempting to vote multiple times;
-    assisting a voter, except as permitted by law;
-    copying fraudulent ballots, security envelopes, or ballot return envelopes;
-    selling or attempting to purchase ballots, security envelopes, or ballot return envelopes;
-    attempting to force, coerce, or unduly influence a voter to vote in any particular way;
-    attempting to impede or interfere with a voter’s choice when marking a ballot;
-    attempting to dissuade a voter from voting at all;
-    attempting to alter, deface, destroy, or fail to deliver a ballot marked by a legitimate voter.

3.    What do I do if my ballot doesn’t arrive in the mail?

Just contact your county clerk.  If your ballot was mailed and not received, a replacement ballot can be easily requested and issued.   Each replacement ballot will be clearly marked to avoid the possibility of duplicate ballots from the same voter.

4.    What do I do?  My dog ate my ballot.  I spilled coffee on my ballot.  I lost my ballot.

If your ballot is lost or spoiled, just contact your county clerk.  A replacement ballot can be easily requested and issued.   Each replacement ballot will be clearly marked to avoid the possibility of duplicate ballots from the same voter.

5.    What if I need assistance in voting?  How does that work with vote by mail?

Assistance may come from a person chosen by the voter; exceptions to this rule include the voter’s employer, an agent of that employer, an officer or agent of the voter’s labor union, or a candidate for office.

 

Assistance is always available from your county clerk with rules to assure that the assistance is nonpartisan and not coercive.


Anyone providing assistance to a voter is required to sign a statement to that effect.  The statement is submitted with the voter’s ballot.

6.    I want to vote in person.  What do I do?

Most people find that vote by mail is an improvement over voting in person and adapt easily.  But if you do need to vote in person, voting at your county clerk’s office is always an option.

7.    How can I be sure that the ballot I mailed back has been received by the county clerk?

The Secretary of State has a website—https://sos.wv.gov/elections/Pages/GoVoteWV.aspx—for this purpose.  If you returned your ballot but it does not show up on the SOS website, please contact your county clerk’s office.

8.    Going to the polls on Election Day is a ritual that vote by mail takes away.  Is there a substitute?

There is no doubt that vote by mail means change.  If dropping your completed and signed ballot in a mailbox is just too impersonal, official ballot deposit locations offer an alternative.  That can be a ritual too.

9.    Do I have to pay postage to send my ballot back?

In some states, a stamp is required to mail a ballot back.  In West Virginia, no stamp is required to return an absentee ballot by mail, so we expect that would continue.

 

A stamp is never required to drop off a completed ballot at an official ballot deposit location.

10.    If we move to vote by mail, can someone else return my ballot for me?

This is your choice.  But it is prohibited for a person entrusted with your ballot NOT to return it.  To guard against the so-called practice of “ballot harvesting,” a proposed amendment to Del. Hansen’s bill would permit no more than ten ballots to be returned by any single individual.

11.    Will vote by mail cost taxpayers more or less than the current system of polling-place elections?

Currently, elections in West Virginia cost a lot on a per ballot basis, when compared with other states.  Every county clerk in WV is responsible for managing two elections:  one absentee, the other in-person with polling places.  Recruitment, training, management of poll workers (9000+ statewide), procurement and staffing of polling places (1700+ statewide), and processing of absentee ballot requests are all costs to taxpayers.  Procurement, maintenance, storage, security, and transportation of voting machines to supply every polling place add more to local costs.


The cost of elections has gone down In every state that has moved to vote by mail.  One study estimated that vote by mail in Colorado would decrease the cost of elections by 40%.

12.    Does vote by mail benefit one political party more than another?

This is a common opinion.  But it is unsupported by evidence.  Both “red” states like Utah and “blue” states like Hawaii have adopted vote by mail.  A recent nationally published testimonial in favor of vote by mail came from Oregon’s Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno (https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/493100-former-oregon-official-touts-states-mail-in-two-decade-voting-record).


West Virginia conducted a Vote by Mail Pilot Program in 2011 for certain cities.  In the Morgantown city election that used vote by mail, voter participation rose and the progressive city council was replaced by a more conservative one.

13.    What other states use vote by mail?  Why?

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington have statewide systems.  Some other states have partial, but not statewide, vote by mail systems.


Oregon is the oldest, enacted by a citizen initiative in 1998.  The Oregon vote by mail idea came from a county clerk who realized the inefficiency of mailing sample ballots to all voters who would then have to come to polling places to cast their votes.


Some states have moved to vote by mail to ease the burden of managing dual systems:  in-person polling places coupled with increasing numbers of absentee ballot requests.


In 2011, West Virginia tried a Vote by Mail Pilot Program for certain municipalities, including Morgantown.  From all the historical accounts we have found, it was successful and increased voter participation in local elections.

14.    How will election administration change under vote by mail?

County clerks will have to manage only one system for each election.  Except for overseas and some military voters, absentee voting will disappear.  Every registered voter will automatically be mailed a paper ballot.  Ballots will be returned by mail or at official ballot deposit locations.  Procurement and management of voting machines and polling places will be eliminated, as will recruitment and training of an increasingly aging population of poll workers.  These changes will save taxpayers money.

15.    I’m homeless.  How can I vote by mail?

Del. Hansen’s bill has specific provisions for people who are homeless.  If you have an address where you receive mail and that matches the address in your voter registration record, your ballot will arrive at that address.  Then, you can mark your ballot and return it just like any other voter.  Any voter without an address or a non-matching address may come to the county clerk’s office for assistance.

16.    Can’t someone else just take my ballot, mark it, and send it back without me knowing?

That is possible, but … it would be a serious violation of the law.

 

Also, you could find out that a ballot was submitted for you by checking online.  And, it is unlikely that the signature would pass muster.  Del. Hansen’s bill lists detailed characteristics for signature verifications (based on Oregon’s published best practices).  You would be notified if the ballot returned “for you” and the signature did not match.  Del. Hansen’s vote by mail bill has made every attempt for vote by mail to have better security than our current system.

17.    Can my vote by mail ballot be postmarked on Election Day or does it have to arrive by Election Day?

Del. Hansen’s bill requires that your ballot be received, not postmarked, by 7:30 p.m. on Election Day.


This is different than the current system for absentee ballot returns, which relies on postmarks.

 

Why the difference?  If you mail your ballot on Election Day (or only a day or two before) and it does not arrive, you won’t know that in time to correct the problem.  You will be disenfranchised.  Making sure that ballots are received by the county clerk by the close of Election Day guarantees that your ballot is received because you can confirm it.
 

This is a best practice from Oregon, the oldest vote by mail state in the U.S.

18.    Absentee voting is an option.  Why force people into vote by mail?

In West Virginia, absentee voting is not available to everyone.


In order to vote absentee, a voter must fit into a category of eligibility and fill out a complex form to request an absentee ballot.  In some cases, the request must be accompanied by private medical information.  Then, county clerks must adjudicate each absentee request, although it is unclear how that is possible when the request involves medical issues.


Theoretically, the law could be changed to enable no-excuse absentee voting, as some other states have done.  But that still leaves voters having to request an absentee ballot and clerks having to manage two separate elections, the absentee one and the in-person one.

 

Some states with rising numbers of absentee ballot requests have found that is the best rationale for going to a full vote by mail system.

19.    What is an official ballot deposit location?

Official ballot deposit locations are places where voters will find a ballot deposit box to return completed ballots without postage required and without depending on the Postal Service. 


These sites will be distributed throughout the county for convenient access by all types of voters—urban, rural, students, in cars, on foot.  Some will be inside and available during business hours (e.g., public libraries, clerk’s office) and others will be outside and accessible 24/7 from the time ballots are mailed out until 7:30 p.m. on Election Day.

 

Ballot deposit boxes will be secure, and they will be emptied according to a schedule and rules managed by the county clerk.  Ballots will be moved directly from the boxes to the clerk’s office according to security procedures specified in the law and approved by the Secretary of State.

20.    We have absentee voting that works through the postal service.  Why do we need vote by mail?

In West Virginia, absentee voting is not available to everyone.  Under current law, only voters who fit into certain categories of eligibility can vote absentee.


For the 2020 primary election, eligibility for absentee ballots was expanded to all voters because of the coronavirus pandemic.  We have no guarantee this accommodation will be extended for the 2020 general election or thereafter.


The main difference between absentee voting and vote by mail is the effort required by the voter:  True vote by mail eliminates the application process.  To vote absentee, the voter must fill out and return an application to request their ballot.  Under vote by mail, voters do not request their ballots.  Instead, the county clerk automatically sends a ballot to every registered voter.  This saves time and money.


Returning ballots is similar in the two systems, except vote by mail would expand the number of places other than the mailbox to return completed ballots.


In terms of processing returned ballots, the work of the county clerk is similar in the two systems—non-forwardable mail and signature verification are the primary methods of voter validation for both absentee and vote by mail systems.

21.    I still don’t understand the differences between absentee voting and vote by mail.  Can you make it simpler?

The old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  Here is a picture mapping out in simple form the steps involved in vote by mail and absentee voting.

22.    The only downside for our county is the effort and expense already made for voting machines. [submitted]

Yes, vote by mail would make most electronic voting machines obsolete.

 

On the other hand, they are expensive to buy, and they require ongoing and expensive maintenance and security.  And they must be replaced periodically as technology moves on.


Preston County’s recent experience may be illustrative of the cost for one county.  According to the Dominion-Post (12/23/2018), new machines and upgraded security for Preston County cost $680,267, with $356,226 coming from a Homeland Security grant and the remainder being paid by the county over four years, $91,566 per year.  An annual maintenance fee adds $24,000 (Dominion-Post, 12/3/2019) over three years.  The cost of storage also has been an issue documented in local reports.


Preston County purchased two types of machines – one type for voting, the other for tabulating.  To supply 28 polling places, 30 tabulators and 130 voting machines were required.


Under vote by mail, tabulators would be required for the county clerk’s office, and perhaps a few voting machines for voters needing such assistance.  The need to supply machines for dozens of polling places would be eliminated.

23.    How easy is it to process all the ballots, if they are counted only on election day?  Are they machine read? [submitted]

Very easy.  Vote by mail ballots look just like your absentee ballot.  And with vote by mail, the counting doesn’t all have to wait until Election Day.


These paper ballots are read and counted by running through an electronic scanner in the clerk’s office. In fact, absentee ballots can be scanned (but not tallied, according to Monongalia County Clerk Carye Blaney) before Election Day, which saves time.


Del. Hansen’s bill specifies how many days before Election Day clerks could begin this process for vote by mail.  Of course, release of any results before Election Day would be prohibited.


It is also important to remember that the cost of the 2020 primary election will be skewed — unusually high numbers of absentee ballots plus a full-scale polling-place election.  Vote by mail would take the latter out of the cost equation.

24.    Are there other cost savings associated with vote by mail?

Yes.  In West Virginia, the typical election requires 9000+ poll workers and 1700+ polling places.  The taxpayers pay for all of this, including costs most of us don't think about:

 

  • Time and travel for poll workers;•  

  • Rent for polling places;

  • Overtime pay for county clerk staff who may be required to work extra hours for polling places to be adequately staffed.


The other cost cannot be quantified.  Poll workers tend to be older, and we know that older individuals are at higher risk for coronavirus infection.  Exposure time is another determinant of infection risk.  While the amount of time spent at a polling place for a voter may be short or long, poll workers spend hours each Election Day performing their public service.  It is simply not worth it to put so many older West Virginians at risk during a pandemic.

21.    I still don’t understand the differences between absentee voting and vote by mail.  Can you make it simpler?

The old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  Here is a picture mapping out in simple form the steps involved in vote by mail and absentee voting.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We thank the League of Women Voters of West Virginia and the League of Women Voters of Morgantown-Monongalia County for their sponsorship.  The League is not responsible for content.
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