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What you need to know about voting by mail

Due to the pandemic, tens of millions more Americans plan to vote by mail than in past elections. But there has been a lot of misinformation around that process, with President Trump making baseless claims about fraud and tampering. William Brangham reports on the current status of voting by mail, how to make sure your vote is counted and why we should readjust our timeline for election results.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amid the pandemic, tens of millions of more Americans are looking to vote by mail than in past elections. But there has been a lot of misinformation around the process.

    William Brangham has this report about the current state of voting by mail and how to make sure your vote is counted.

  • William Brangham:

    There's a lot of confusion around voting by mail this election season. People are worried whether the vote will be safe and whether all the votes will be counted.

    That's especially critical after more than an estimated 500,000 mail-in ballots were thrown out or disqualified during primary elections earlier this year. In addition to user error, another major concern is driven by just the tidal wave of misinformation, or conflicting information around voting by mail. Some of it is coming from political parties. Some of it is coming from President Trump. Some of it is even coming from the U.S. Postal Service.

    For example, the state of Colorado recently sued the Postal Service to stop it sending out this flyer to people, since it included incorrect information about how Coloradans can get their mail-in ballots.

    Colorado and four other states — Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — already conduct their elections entirely by mail. This year, in part because of the pandemic, California, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont and the District of Columbia have decided to mail ballots to all active voters.

    Officials in some red and blue states are trying to increase access to mail-in voting amid the pandemic. Ohio, a Republican-controlled state, held an entirely mail-in primary election this April.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The Democrats are trying to rig this election, because it's the only way they're going to win.

  • William Brangham:

    Despite President Trump's repeated baseless claims that mail-in voting is riddled with fraud, and that Democrats are trying to use it to rig the election, his own campaign is mailing out flyers to its supporters across the country encouraging them to vote by mail, and assuring them that it's safe.

    Utah's Republican Lieutenant Governor, Republican Spencer Cox, told the "NewsHour" that universal mail-in voting in his state has increased voter participation, and, like in all states, mail-in ballots are carefully screened for errors or irregularities.

  • Spencer Cox:

    We take painstaking procedures and efforts to make sure that there is no fraud. And we have not seen rampant voter fraud.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, some other organizations have inadvertently sent out bad information to voters.

    The nonprofit Center For Voter Information sent vote-by-mail applications to half-a-million Virginia residents, but with the wrong return addresses, adding to the confusion.

    Meanwhile, the president continues to give voters bad information. Several times, he's told supporters to vote absentee, which is a type of mail-in voting in some states where you need to be approved to receive a ballot, and then he's telling them to also try and vote in person on Election Day, to somehow check whether their first vote was counted.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Make sure you send the ballot in, and then go to your polling place and make sure it counts.

  • William Brangham:

    Not only is voting twice illegal — it's actually a felony in all 50 states — elections officials say it will lead to long delays at polling places on Election Day.

    Most states will allow you to track your mail-in ballot online, rather than physically going into the polling place.

    If you're confused about any of this, visit the Web site of your state board of elections or your secretary of state. There, you can find out how to track your ballot online, how to fill it out correctly, so it's not rejected, and any other questions you have about voting.

    Another critical piece of this is that, unless the presidential election is a clear landslide one way or the other, because of all those mail-in ballots being counted, we may not have a winner declared on election night.

    Elections officials in critical battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states aren't currently allowed to begin counting those mail-in ballots until Election Day. So, if an estimated 60 percent of voters plan to vote by mail, it could be another day, a few days, or even weeks to count all those ballots.

    President Trump keeps falsely saying that any such delay would be de facto evidence of fraud.

  • President Donald Trump:

    You know what? You're not going to know this possibly, if you really did it right, for months or for years, because these ballots are all going to be lost. They're all going to be gone.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    And I think it's all designed to create so much chaos.

  • William Brangham:

    The worry for many Democrats is that President Trump might try to declare victory on election night, without waiting for mail-in ballots to be counted.

    Polling shows, in this election, Democrats are more likely to vote by mail than Republicans. But it's important to stress that a delay does not mean the results will be fraudulent, according to ProPublica's Jessica Huseman.

  • Jessica Huseman:

    If there is any delay, we just assume that there is a problem, when, in reality, it allows for time for election administrators to make sure that all of the counts are accurate.

  • William Brangham:

    So, we might all have to make some adjustments for our election night expectations.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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