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An election expert answers viewer questions about voting

Recent policy changes at the United States Postal Service, combined with President Trump’s false claims that fraud mars the integrity of voting by mail, have raised concerns over voting during the pandemic this fall. How can Americans be sure their votes will be received and counted? For our series “Ask us,” Amna Nawaz talks to David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we turn to Ask Us, where we put questions from viewers like you to experts who can make sense of these tumultuous times.

    Earlier, we reported on the postmaster general's changes at the post office and doubts the White House has cast on mail in voting.

    All this has troubled many viewers who are considering voting by mail.

    Amna Nawaz is back with more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Trump's repeated attacks on mail-in voting, along with reports about mailboxes being removed and sorting machines taken out of post offices, have all led to anxiety, fear and confusion.

    The postmaster general now says he's suspending any more changes until after the election. But many of you are worried about election security, how to vote safely during a pandemic, and how to make sure your vote counts.

    To answer your questions, I'm joined by David Becker. He's the founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

    David Becker, welcome to the "NewsHour." And thanks for being here.

    Let's get right to these questions.

    The very first one comes from Judy Shapiro in New York. And this is her question: "How can I check what voting options I have, other than going to the polls?"

    David, what do you say to Judy?

  • David Becker:

    So, of course, there are a variety of different rules all around the country. We're actually not holding one election in November. We're holding about 10,000 little elections all over the country. And that can be really challenging.

    The best place to go is your county or local election Web site. Find out what your county election Web site is. That will have almost all the information. If you want one national Web site that you can start at, you can go to CanIVote.org, which is run by the National Association of Secretaries of State.

    And that'll redirect you to your state election Web site.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, all those options are online. People can go check them out, because, of course, all the dates are different as well.

    Let's go to our next question as well. This was submitted on video. Let's take a listen now to a question from Jeremy Lopez.

  • Jeremy Lopez:

    Hi, my name is Jeremy Lopez. And I am from Austin, Texas.

    And my question is, how will the physical count of the mail-in ballots be handled and checked?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David, we are anticipating an influx of those mail-in ballots. So, what do you say? What do we know about how those are going to be counted?

  • David Becker:

    Well, perhaps as many as 50 percent of all ballots will be mail ballots this year. The highest we have ever had before was in 2016, where almost 25 percent of mail ballots came in by — came in by mail, rather.

    And how that's handled is, those get returned to the election office. Often, many, if not most of them are returned in person by the voters, often in drop boxes or election offices, or sometimes even in the polling places themselves. So you don't need to rely upon the mail for that.

    And once they get there, according to state law, they can begin processing them at various times. Some states allow processing those ballots early, before Election Day. In other states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, for instance, require that that not be started until Election Day itself, election morning.

    But what happens is, election officials, multiple election officials, review those ballots, to make sure they're properly cast. They will look at the personal information on the envelope to make sure it matches the voter's file, and they will match the signature on file to the voter's file to see if it matches, make sure that they're properly cast by the right voter.

    And once they're sure of that, they will then remove the ballot from the envelope and place it into a scanner to be counted. Depending on how many of those ballots are and how early a state can start counting them will depend on how soon we know what the results are from those mail ballots.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David, the next question now comes from Carol Woosley. She lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

    And this is her question. She asks: "If you apply for an absentee ballot, but it doesn't arrive before the election, do you lose your right to vote, or can you still go to the polls?"

    There's a lot of confusion over this, David. So how exactly does it work?

  • David Becker:

    Every single voter has the right to go to the polls and vote in person, every single registered voter, even if they have requested a mail ballot or if they're in a state where they get automatically sent a mail ballot. There's nine states that will be doing that this fall.

    So, if you have asked for a mail ballot or were expecting a mail ballot, or even if you have received it and change your mind, and would like to vote in person, you can still go vote in person.

    Now, depending upon the rules of the state, you might have to cast a provisional ballot. That's to make sure that someone doesn't return their mail ballot as well. There are checks and balances in place in every single state to make sure that, even if someone received a mail ballot and then they vote in person, that they only can vote once.

    But it's really important. If you have requested a mail ballot and it's getting close to Election Day, perhaps even as much as a week before Election Day, I think that is a good time to go to plan B and look for other options, particularly early in-person voting options at that point, to make sure you can cast your ballot and it'll be counted.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Important to know, though every single eligible voter can go to the polls.

    Finally, here's one more question from Ithaca, New York. This one's from Saundra Goodman.

    And she asks: "How can American voters be assured that we can trust the Postal Service to securely handle our ballots?"

    David, this goes to the heart of the issue for so many Americans, trust in the election process. What do you say to Saundra?

  • David Becker:

    So, the Postal Service has been doing this for about 200 years, since before the Civil War, and they have been doing it well. And we have trusted it throughout our history.

    Of course, the recent news has shaken that trust. We're wondering why the Postal Service is sending letters to states and telling them that they might not be able to process the ballots.

    Here's what voters can do. Voters, if they want to vote by mail, if they think that's the right way for them to vote, then they should request a ballot as early as possible, so that that ballot can be delivered them as soon as possible.

    But then, if they're not 100 percent sure that there's enough time or they have doubts about the mail returning their voted ballot, there are lots of options to return that ballot in person.

    So, for instance, in every state, if you have requested a mail ballot, you can return that ballot in advance of Election Day to an election office. Many states have secure drop boxes located around the counties and states where those ballots can be dropped.

    And that's a wonderful way to make sure that the ballot gets directly to election offices.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bottom line, do your research, have a plan. Such important information.

    David Becker from the Center for Election Innovation and Research, thanks so much for being with us.

  • David Becker:

    Thank you, Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And thanks to all of you for your questions.

    You can always send us more any time via "NewsHour"'s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts, or on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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