What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Some states are still deciding election rules. What should voters do?

Election Day is less than four weeks away, and millions of Americans have already cast ballots. But rules in many states are still undecided due to pending court cases -- mostly over the distribution, verification and return of mail-in ballots. John Yang talks to Tammy Patrick of Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation aiming to improve the democratic process, about what voters should know.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Election Day is less than four weeks away, and millions of Americans have already cast ballots.

    But, as John Yang reports, the voting rules in many states are still the subject of court cases.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, most of these court disputes are over mail-in ballots, who gets them and how they get them, what voters have to do once they get them, and how and when do they return them to be counted?

    For the most part, in general, Democrats are trying to make the more widely available and easier to use, and Republicans are trying to keep the rules as they are.

    Tammy Patrick is a senior adviser for Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation whose stated aim is to improve the democratic process.

    Tammy Patrick, thanks so much for joining us.

    I want to sort of walk through the process from voter registration to turning in your ballot and talk about what's being fought over in the courts over each of these steps and the significance of them.

    Let me begin with voter registration.

    In Arizona, which you know well — you were an election official in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix — the judge just on Monday extended the voter registration deadline from Monday by about three weeks.

    And early voting actually began today. What's the significance of that fight over when voting registration ended?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    So, it's true that many states allow for voters to register to vote up to and even including on Election Day.

    But having those policies and procedures in place well in advance of the election actually starting allows for the election administrators to put in all the policies necessary to make sure that the voters are being well-served.

    When these policies change, like a deadline for voter registration, it really can cascade throughout the rest of the election administration. So, you mentioned that early voting is starting, as well as ballots already coming back in the mail from voters.

    And so now that election officials will also be registering voters still, they will have a complicated process of all of these factors and all of these things occurring at the same time.

  • John Yang:

    Now the question of who gets a mail-in ballot. Some states, like California, because of the pandemic, have moved to sending all registered voters a mail-in ballot.

    Today, the Texas state Supreme Court said that Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, cannot do that. What's at stake there?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    In Harris county, they wanted to send out an application to all of their registered voters for them to be able to know that they could, in fact, request a ballot be mailed to them that they could vote in the midst of this global pandemic.

    We have five states that have decided they're going to mail out the actual ballots to all registered voters, and that also has been in the courts as a question and a challenge as to whether or not the states should be able to do that.

    But it's important for the viewers to know that, all across this country, we have had tens of millions of voters in many states voting in all-mail elections for literally decades. We have been voting by mail in this country since the Civil War, when Lincoln implemented it.

  • John Yang:

    And then, once the voter gets a ballot, there are some requirements about getting witnesses. Some have to — may even require a notary.

    Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially reinstated a rule in South Carolina that said it had to be witnessed, even though some ballots had already been returned without a witness.

  • Tammy Patrick:

    When these questions of policy come into the courtrooms so close to an election, it does confuse things for voters.

    So you have voters that have already cast their ballot in South Carolina without a witness, and now you have the reinstatement of the witness requirement, and so ballots being received by local election officials moving forward will need to have a witness.

    We know there are American voters who are quarantined in their homes who don't have access to other individuals to be able to witness their ballots for them, and it's going to be a challenge for some Americans.

  • John Yang:

    I should note that the Supreme Court said that ballots sent in, previously mailed in without witnesses — witness signatures and those received within several days after the court's decision will still be valid and still be counted.

    You mentioned drop boxes. Texas governor said that he's restricting drop boxes to one per county. There are other cases or lawsuits in big states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, about when — the deadline for receiving absentee ballots.

  • Tammy Patrick:

    And this is yet another area where there's a lot of contention.

    And a lot of it is — as you mentioned earlier, it's incredibly partisan. So, instead of recognizing that here we are in a global pandemic, and voters need to have options to be able to decide what is safest for themselves and their families to still be able to participate in this very important election, many election officials on both sides of the aisles have been trying to expand options for voters, and have been stopped in the courtrooms and in the state capitals.

    So, when it comes to how voters can return their ballots, whether or not they're able to drop them in a drop box, a secure location that has chain of custody protocols and all sorts of security measures in place by their local election officials, or whether or not they can return it through the United States Postal Service, and if a postmark counts or not, these are all the sorts of questions that have been called into play in this election.

    And I think we're going to continue to hear about it after Election Day.

  • John Yang:

    For voters who may be confused about what the rules are because of all these changes, all these challenges, what advice do you have for them?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    My advice in this moment is to act early.

    So, don't wait. Don't wait to make sure that you have checked your voter registration. We have already moved past some of the registration deadlines in some states. Don't wait to request your ballot until the deadline if you decided that you want to vote by mail.

    Go ahead and get that request in, and then return your ballot as early as possible. And know what your options are, whether or not you can drop it in a drop box, or you can take it to your elections office, or you can even take it to the polls in some cases, whether it's an early voting location or a location on Election Day.

    It's important for individuals to know that, in many states, the majority of states, vote by mail or absentee ballots that are returned prior to Election Day can begin processing and start counting on Election Day.

    So, on election night, when the holograms hit the television screens, many of those results are, in fact, vote-by-mail ballots.

  • John Yang:

    Tammy Patrick of the Democracy project, thank you very much.

  • Tammy Patrick:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment