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Analysis

Voters Should Be Able to Return Absentee Ballots to Polling Places

Absentee ballot requests have surged, but options for returning ballots remain limited.

September 10, 2020

Time is short to make needed changes to our elec­tions systems to give voters conveni­ent, safe options for return­ing their ballots amid the Covid-19 pandemic. One possib­il­ity that has received less atten­tion is to allow voters who have reques­ted an absentee ballot to return it to a polling place, partic­u­larly at early voting sites.

This voting option has been used in states where absentee voting is highest, and it has a number of advant­ages: it relies primar­ily on exist­ing infra­struc­ture and can be imple­men­ted quickly and safely during early voting peri­ods, when polling places are less crowded.

Millions more voters than usual are expec­ted to choose to vote absentee, many for the first time. As the elec­tion approaches many voters are likely to have an absentee ballot they want to cast but will miss the dead­line to mail them. Most states do not accept ballots received after Elec­tion Day or only accept them for a short window after. Given the delays in the mail, voters who have not cast their ballots well in advance of Elec­tion Day will not be confid­ent they can vote by mail.

Some states have made changes to make return­ing absentee ballots more conveni­ent, but on the whole, most voters will have limited choices. For example, most states do not make secure drop boxes where ballots can return their ballots without post­age widely avail­able. Many states limit voters’ options to give their ballot to someone else to return for them. A major­ity of states do not pre-pay post­age for voters to return absentee ballots.

With strict absentee voting dead­lines, mail delays, and limited choices for return­ing ballots, voters could face no altern­at­ive but to vote in-person. However, many voters reques­ted absentee ballots precisely because they have concerns about voting in person. These voters could be forced to choose between their vote and their health.

Another approach that has been used success­fully in some states is to allow voters to take their absentee ballots to voting loca­tions during the early voting period and on Elec­tion Day. This option is popu­lar with voters. For example, in Cali­for­nia, in the counties that sent every voter a ballot in 2018, 22 percent of voters who used mail ballots dropped them off at a vote center. A recent poll of Black voters found that 21 percent said that if it was up to them they would drop their absentee ballots off at a polling place.

Allow­ing voters to return their ballots at polling places would vastly expand the number of places for voters to return them without a need to acquire and install a great deal of equip­ment. This makes the policy cheaper than other options for expand­ing the return of absentee ballots, like drop boxes (which can cost up to $10,000 each) and paying for post­age (which could cost millions of dollars in some states). To imple­ment this policy, counties largely just need some signage and a secure container to collect the ballots.

The prac­tice also poses fewer risks to voters and poll work­ers than in-person voting because voters will not have to spend much time inside a polling place — if the process is designed effi­ciently. For example, there could be a dedic­ated line spaced a safe distance from other voters to allow for quick ballot drop-off with a poll worker. Elec­tions offi­cials could even have a poll worker outside accept­ing ballots so that voters never have to enter the polling site.

Most import­antly, return­ing mail ballots to polling places will avoid risks of postal service delays result­ing in rejec­ted ballots. During the primar­ies, late arrival caused thou­sands of ballots to be rejec­ted. And if voters know they have the option to return an absentee ballot without risk­ing the mail, more might even be inclined to request one and avoid voting in-person.

We know that letting voters drop off ballots at polling places can be imple­men­ted safely and securely. In fact, the five states that regu­larly conduct primar­ily vote-by-mail elec­tions all offer this option. Elec­tions offi­cials have estab­lished prac­tices in those states that will help with the success­ful imple­ment­a­tion of polling place drop-off.

One is to allow voters to return their absentee ballots to polling places through­out the early voting period, when traffic tends to be lighter. Further, the work­ers who are present during early voting are more likely to be effect­ively trained on how to handle ballot drop-offs because that partic­u­lar crop of poll work­ers often have more exper­i­ence with the elec­tion process than a typical poll worker who only volun­teers on Elec­tion Day.

Allow­ing voters to drop ballots off on Elec­tion Day when traffic at polling places is heav­iest is certainly doable, but it intro­duces the need for addi­tional troubleshoot­ing to ensure that ballot drops offs would not add to crowds and lines that can increase the risks of expos­ure to the coronavirus. One way around this would be for elec­tion offi­cials to ensure there is staff capa­city and space to set up a table dedic­ated to accept­ing absentee ballots. Since voters drop­ping off ballots typic­ally do not have to check-in, this altern­at­ive line could let voters get in and out effi­ciently without contrib­ut­ing to a bottle­neck at the regu­lar check-in station.

Another import­ant consid­er­a­tion is ensur­ing secur­ity. The ballots must be depos­ited in a secure container and there must be proto­cols to ensure there is a robust chain of custody for the return of the ballots.

Elec­tions offi­cials must also ensure the right supplies are avail­able. Polling places will need replace­ment mail-ballot envel­opes avail­able in case voters try to return their ballot without one. There will also need to be prom­in­ent signage noti­fy­ing voters of the process for drop­ping off a ballot and direct­ing people to the appro­pri­ate poll work­ers. This way voters can avoid unne­ces­sary waits and crowding.

Finally, poll work­ers will need to be adequately trained to handle mail ballots that are dropped off. The work­ers will have to check that ballot envel­opes are complete and to help resolve other issues, like if envel­opes have a miss­ing signa­ture from a voter, witness, or third-party deliv­er­ing the ballot.

With some plan­ning, train­ing, and voter educa­tion, large numbers of voters can drop off absentee ballots at polling places safely, securely, and on time. Elec­tions offi­cials should try hard to make this an option, espe­cially during the early voting period.