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How election officials and USPS handle mail-in ballots

The pandemic is pushing more voters to cast ballots by mail. While most evidence shows that voting fraud is extremely rare, President Trump has been claiming the opposite. Now he's criticizing the idea of more funding for the U.S. Postal Service, which congressional Democrats say is needed to support the increase in mail-in voting. William Brangham talks to ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The pandemic is pushing voters to cast ballots by mail, but President Trump is claiming, including again this morning, that vote by mail is riddled with fraud.

    Congressional Democrats have sought to include billions of dollars of funding in the next aid bill in order to support the U.S. Postal Service and to expand mail-in voting.

    But in an interview today with FOX Business Network, President Trump dismisses the effort.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Now, they need that money in order to have the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. But if they don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail-in voting, because they're not equipped to have it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In response, a spokesperson for Joe Biden's campaign, Andrew Bates, said in a statement that President Trump is — quote — "sabotaging a basic service because he wants to deprive Americans of their fundamental right to vote safely during the most catastrophic public health crisis in over 100 years."

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court today let Rhode Island retain a policy for now that lets residents there vote by mail without witnesses present.

    William Brangham explores how the vote-by-mail process works.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, five states already conduct their elections almost entirely by mail right now, and, for the most part, their experience over the last few years has been a good one.

    But, as you're saying, given the pandemic, it's likely that millions more Americans will be trying to cast their vote this way come November.

    To help dispel some of the myths and allegations about this technique, I'm joined again by Jessica Huseman. She's a reporter at ProPublica and has made the election beat her beat for many years now.

    Jessica, great to see you again.

    Could you just help us — for people who are not familiar with this, basically speaking, what is voting by mail?

  • Jessica Huseman:

    Voting mail is very similar to what we have always done, except for, instead of casting a ballot in the precinct, you are casting a ballot through the mail.

    So, everything stays the same. Once the ballot is received by the local administrator, they count in the exact same way that paper ballots will be cast inside the precinct. It's the steps before it that are a little bit different.

    And so, in every state, it's just a bit different. There are five states and now a couple of — a couple more that have entirely rehauled their system to accommodate vote by mail. And so they will automatically send voters a ballot.

    But in the vast majority of states, you have to request a ballot, and then you are — and then you can receive one. And so your ballot is mailed to you generally, along with an instruction packet, and sometimes a book of information on the candidates. You can make your choices at your leisure at home, and then you have several ways to return that ballot in most states.

    You can, of course, mail it back. You can drop it off at a secure drop-off location. And in many states, you can return them directly to the polls. So, you could, in theory, go to your precinct and hand them your mail-in ballot, instead of casting it there, which might save you a little bit of time.

  • William Brangham:

    Now, the president has alleged that voting by mail is rampant with fraud, and rampant with the potential for fraud. How true is that?

  • Jessica Huseman:

    You know, it's not true at all.

    I think that, you know, voter fraud does happen. And I don't want to put anyone under the impression that it is a complete myth. It does happen, but it is exceedingly rare. There have been multiple studies that show that you're far more likely to statistically get struck by lightning than be the victim of or perpetrate voter fraud.

    And so we're talking about something that already happens at a very, very low rate. And what we have seen over the last year is that states have really ramped up the way in which they verify ballots to begin with, and especially mail ballots, because they know that this is coming.

    And many of the security techniques that are necessary for ensuring that these ballots are appropriately cast are easy to do and low-budget options.

    And so we have seen states across the country implement those. And so now, you know, because we have standardized this process, because we have professionalized it, there is a very low risk that anyone's ballot could be fraudulently cast.

  • William Brangham:

    We have seen some recent changes happening at the post office. A new postmaster general has instituted some new changes. He's stopped overtime.

    And we have seen reports of delays in postal delivery around the country. Is there a concern shared by a lot of people that those delays could hamper a sudden tidal wave of ballots going through the mail come November?

  • Jessica Huseman:

    You know, I think that that is a real concern and one that I share.

    I think that our post office is already strapped, and we are relying on them more heavily to essentially serve democracy than we ever have in the past.

    And we have seen the USPS work very tightly and appropriately and quickly with the five states that set up vote by mail. We know that those USPS offices have a very specific process that they follow to identify ballots, to ensure that they're postmarked, and ensure that they arrive on time.

    My concern is that the states that do not have as much lead time as those five states might not do the basic homework that they need to do with their local USPS to ensure that those processes, even if only in part, are still in place.

    So, for example, one of the biggest reasons that ballots don't arrive postmarked at the end location is because it's not extremely clear that the envelope contains a ballot. And that's not the case in the five states that we have talked about. They have very specific envelopes. Those envelopes are recognized and can be identified easily by USPS.

    But that requires a lot of organization, getting your hands on thousands of envelopes that all look the same, making sure that every single post office in the state is aware of the process.

    And if you can have those lines of communication, then it's not as difficult as you might think to organize.

  • William Brangham:

    So, let's say someone has heard about potential delays, concerns about fraud. They want to get — they want to guarantee that they get their ballot and they get it back in time, so that it's counted.

    Where do people start? Is it their county board of elections, their state? Where do they begin?

  • Jessica Huseman:

    You should always begin at the place closest to home. So that's your county election — that's your county election office.

    And depending on the problem, the state can certainly at least advise you on how to proceed. But the vast majority of questions that are going to be answered and the specificity around where you need to turn up to vote, how you're going to get your mail ballot, that's all going to come from the county offices.

  • William Brangham:

    So, I guess the takeaway is, get it done, get it done early, ask questions if you're confused, but don't wait.

  • Jessica Huseman:

    Right. Exactly.

    And not waiting is a really big point. And I think that, you know, you hear activists all the time say, you need to make a plan to vote. Well, this year, making a plan is going to look a little bit different.

    Because the virus is so fast-moving and because it's so unpredictable, the polling location that is assigned your polling location today might change tomorrow, or it might change four days before the election.

    So, now things are moving so quickly that I would very much recommend that voters only rely on their county Web site or calling the county for specific information.

  • William Brangham:

    Jessica Huseman, as always, thank you for your advice.

  • Jessica Huseman:

    Thank you.

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