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Policy Library

Safe Voter Turnout with Mail-First Voting

Sending ballots to all voters at their homes protects people’s right to vote, even if they cannot safely or practically vote in person.This policy also protects the election itself. Providing a range of options to obtain and submit completed ballots, through the mail or in-person polling locations, along with other key provisions to ensure equitable access, will increase voter turnout, improve convenience and help ensure the very legitimacy of our elections.

In The News

“The nation in crisis. A divisive president up for re-election. Millions of Americans who can't make it to their local polling place. Partisan fights over proposals to vote by mail. Sound familiar? It was the 1860s, the Civil War was raging and Republicans, led by President Abraham Lincoln, wanted to let Union soldiers vote from the battlefield. … A century and a half later, amidst a new debate over voting by mail as the country prepares to hold an election during a different kind of war — this one against the coronavirus — America's long history of letting soldiers vote from far-flung war zones shows the issue has always been controversial, but that the worst fears of critics have never come to pass.”
“‘Mail-in ballots help maintain that crucial access, and it’s time that every state in this nation offer mail-in ballots to voters,’ Secretary of State Jena Griswold said …’[I]t has made us a national leader in voter participation.’”
“‘Bold action is needed on nearly every front here in Pennsylvania, in the United States and around the world. … A hotly contested presidential election, unsterilized machines, short-staffed polling places and crowds of voters and poll workers in close quarters could all contribute to the spread of coronavirus and undermine orderly election administration,’ according to a new report from the Pitt Institute.”

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FAQ

Who does this help?
Giving all voters the option to vote from home makes it easier for more people to participate in the democratic process safely and securely. As the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, it also helps everyone who cares about safeguarding democracy. Polling by Data For Progress shows that voters support mail ballot elections by a 55-25 margin because those who have limited ability to leave their home for personal or public health reasons; those who juggle work, family and other obligations; and those who live far from a voting site benefit from the opportunity to vote from home.
How does this policy help ensure equitable access to elections?
It is critical to ensure that historically marginalized voters -- including people of color, voters with disabilities, voters with limited English proficiency, and students -- have a fair and equal opportunity to cast a ballot, including when society is facing unprecedented health risks connected to in-person voting. This policy combines pre-paid mail ballot options for all voters with accessible in-person polling locations; a prohibition on disproportionate reduction in polling sites in historically marginalized communities; language access requirements for ballots, polling locations and voter service centers; and an accessible and language-access enabled telephone hotline to assist voters with mailed ballots.
Is this high cost for the state government?
No. States that have sent mail ballots to all voters have actually saved money overall by reducing some of the costs associated with voting machines and poll staffing. Studies have found that voting at home can save states as much as 40% over traditional voting arrangements. In addition, some federal funding can likely be deployed to assist states with a portion of the costs of mailing ballots to all voters and ensuring accessible in-person options remain available.
How does this improve election security?
The paper ballots used in voting at home are not vulnerable to hacking and other security risks that threaten the electronic voting machines often used for in-person voting. In addition, the same rules and penalties preventing voter fraud that apply to in-person and absentee voting also apply to voting at home. And, voters who prefer to give their ballot directly to election officials rather than using the mail can drop their ballots in secure ballot boxes at designated locations.
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Model Policy

SECTION 1 (TITLE):
This act shall be known as the Safe and Secure Voting Opportunities Act.

SECTION 2 (PURPOSE):
The legislature of STATE hereby finds, determines, and declares that self-government by election is more legitimate and better accepted as voter participation increases. By enacting this article, the legislature hereby concludes that it is appropriate to provide for mail ballot elections. Recognizing, however, the continued need for in-person voting options through early voting and on election day, the legislature finds that mail ballot elections must include voter service and polling centers so voters can register to vote, update voter registration information, obtain replacement ballots if needed, and vote in person.

SECTION 3 (PROVISIONS):

(a) Elections to be conducted by mail
  • (i) All elections in this state shall be conducted with a mail ballot option provided to all voters.
  • (ii) The Secretary of State shall adopt rules to govern the procedures for conducting elections by mail and provide for uniformity in the conduct of state elections by mail, including:
  • (1) Requirements and criteria for mail ballots;
  • (2) Requirements and criteria for mail ballot packets;
  • (3) Requirements and criteria for the designation of places of deposit for the ballots cast in an election, including the security requirements;
  • (4) Standards and procedures for ensuring that each ballot shall be counted where the voter substantially complied with the requirements of this chapter. For purposes of this subparagraph, “substantially complied” shall mean the designee of the chief election officer can determine the voter's eligibility and intent based on the statement of the voter, the records of the chief election officer, and the markings on the ballot.
  • (5) Standards and procedures for verifying voter signatures, which standards shall include a presumption of validity such that a signature may be considered questionable only if it differs in multiple, significant and obvious respects from the signature on file, and slight dissimilarities are resolved in favor of the voter whenever possible;
  • (6) Safe, secure and reliable procedures for counting mail ballots received;
  • (7) The establishment of a toll-free voter assistance hotline that is equipped to provide assistance over the telephone for voters who:
  • --(a) require assistance in any language of which there are, in STATE, more than 10,000 people who are members of a single language minority and are limited-English proficient; or
  • --(b) are hearing or speech impaired
  • (8) Procedures for providing in-person vote centers to meet the needs of people of color, Native Americans, people with disabilities, limited-English proficient citizens, students, and other historically marginalized citizens;
  • (9) Procedures for providing notice and comment periods for plans promulgated under these sections.
(b) Definitions
  • (i) “Business reply mail” means a mailing service allowing a pre-addressed return identification envelope to be mailed by a voter without charge, with the state paying the mailing fee for a return identification envelope that is returned by United States mail but not for a return identification envelope that is not returned by United States mail.
  • (ii) "Mail ballot election" means an election for which all eligible voters receive ballots by mail and vote by mailing those ballots, depositing the ballots at, as applicable, drop-off locations or voter service and polling centers, or, as applicable, by voting at a voter service and polling center.
  • (iii) "Mail ballot packet" means the packet of information provided by the chief election officer to eligible voters in the mail ballot election. The packet includes the ballot, instructions for completing the ballot, a return envelope, and, if applicable, a secrecy envelope or sleeve.
  • (iv) "Return envelope" means an envelope that is printed with spaces for the name and address of, and a self-affirmation to be signed by, an eligible voter voting in a mail ballot election, that contains a ballot for the voter, and that is designed to allow election officials, upon examining the signature, name, and address on the outside of the envelope, to determine whether the enclosed ballot is being submitted by an eligible voter who has not previously voted in that particular election.
  • (v) "Secrecy envelope" means the envelope or sleeve used for a mail ballot election that contains the eligible voter's ballot for the election, and that is designed to conceal and maintain the confidentiality of the voter's vote until the counting of votes for that particular election.
(c) Pre-election procedures.
  • (i) The chief election officer responsible for conducting an election that is to be by mail ballot shall send a proposed election plan for conducting the mail ballot election to the secretary of state no later than ninety days prior to the election. The proposed plan may be based on the standard plan adopted by the secretary of state by rule.
  • (ii) The secretary of state shall approve or disapprove the written plan for conducting a mail ballot election, within fifteen days after receiving the plan and shall provide a written notice to the affected political subdivision.
  • (iii) If a plan submitted by the subdivision has not been approved by 60 days before the election, the standard plan adopted by the Secretary of State shall apply in that subdivision, and the subdivision shall be so notified.
  • (iv) The chief election officer shall supervise the distribution, handling, and counting of ballots and the survey of returns in accordance with rules promulgated by the secretary of state and shall take the necessary steps to protect the confidentiality of the ballots cast and the integrity of the election.
  • (v) No voter information shall be delivered in the form of a sample ballot.
  • (vi) The chief election officer shall provide training for all persons serving as election judges in the signature verification standards and procedures established pursuant to paragraph (a)(ii)(4) of this section.
  • (vii) As the Secretary of State develops the standard plan, and as chief election officers develop their plans, each shall provide notice of the start of that process and an opportunity to voters in their jurisdiction to submit comments, through a written comments process and at least one opportunity for verbal testimony.
(d) Registration record - list of mail-in ballots
  • (i) The chief election officer shall record in the statewide voter registration system the names and precinct numbers of eligible voters, together with the date on which the mail ballot was sent and the date on which each mail ballot was returned or otherwise cast. If a mail ballot is not returned or otherwise cast, or if it is rejected and not counted, that fact must be recorded in the statewide voter registration system. This information shall be updated daily, available electronically on the website of the chief election officer, and otherwise subject to public inspection under applicable laws and rules.
(e) Mailing ballots
  • (i) Each registered voter of the state, overseas voter, and service voter shall automatically be issued a mail ballot for each general election, special election, or primary. Overseas voters and service voters are authorized to cast the same ballots, including those for special elections, as a registered voter of the state would receive under this chapter. Each registered voter shall continue to receive a ballot by mail until the death or disqualification of the voter.
  • (ii) Not sooner than thirty-one days before a general, primary, or other mail ballot election, and no later than twenty-two days before the election, the chief election officer shall mail to each eligible voter, at the last mailing address appearing in the registration records and in accordance with United States postal service regulations, a mail ballot packet, which must be marked "DO NOT FORWARD. ADDRESS CORRECTION REQUESTED", or any other similar statement that is in accordance with United States postal service regulations. Nothing in this subsection affects any provision of this code governing the delivery of mail ballots to an absent uniformed services voter, nonresident overseas voter, or resident overseas voter covered by the federal "Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act", 52 U.S.C. sec. 20301 et seq.
  • (iii) For a primary mail ballot election, the mail ballot packet must be mailed only to registered voters eligible to vote in that primary. If the thirty-first day before an election is a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday, the chief election officer may mail ballot packets on the Friday immediately preceding the thirty-first day.
(f) Ballots and supplies for mail voting
  • (i) The chief election officer shall provide mail ballots, affidavits, certificates, envelopes, instruction cards, instructions for reaching the voter assistance hotline, and other necessary supplies in the same manner as other election supplies are provided for in all elections and without cost to any eligible voter wishing to vote pursuant to this article. Voters shall be provided with a return identification envelope that may be returned by business reply mail. The state shall bear the cost of complying with this subsection.
  • (ii) The mail ballots must be in the same form as other official ballots for the same election.
  • (iii) The mail ballot instructions must include, at a minimum,
  • (1) directions for:
  • --(a) marking the ballot,
  • --(b) inserting the marked ballot in the secrecy envelope or secrecy sleeve,
  • --(c) inserting the secrecy envelope or secrecy sleeve with the marked ballot in the return identification envelope,
  • --(d) signing the return identification envelope before mailing or delivering the return identification envelope containing the secrecy envelope or secrecy sleeve with the marked ballot, and
  • --(e) returning the ballot;
  • (2) the ballot return deadline;
  • (3) the address of the ballot drop-off location nearest the voter’s registered address;
  • (4) information regarding how to obtain a replacement;
  • (5) the statement: "All ballots are counted in the same manner." ; and
  • (6) the statement: "You must sign the affirmation on the envelope. Do not sign, initial, or print your name on the ballot."
  • (7) A notice of the availability of the voter assistance hotline and instructions on how to reach the hotline.
  • (8) A notice that the voter may choose to have the ballot returned by a third party.
  • (iv) The ballot or ballot label shall contain the following warning: "WARNING: Any person who, by use of force or other means, unduly influences an eligible voter to vote in any particular manner or to refrain from voting, or who falsely makes, alters, forges, or counterfeits any mail ballot before or after it has been cast, or who destroys, defaces, mutilates, or tampers with a ballot is subject, upon conviction, to imprisonment, or to a fine, or both."
  • (v) Return envelope
  • (1) The return envelope shall have printed on it a self-affirmation substantially in the following form: "I state under penalty of perjury that I am an eligible voter; that my signature and name are as shown on this envelope; that I have not and will not cast any vote in this election except by the enclosed ballot; and that my ballot is enclosed in accord with the provisions of the Uniform Election Code of 1992." The self-affirmation shall be accompanied by a line for the signature of the voter and the date.
  • (2) The signing of the self-affirmation on the return envelope shall constitute an affirmation by the eligible voter, under penalty of perjury, that the facts stated in the self-affirmation are true. If the eligible voter is unable to sign, the eligible voter may affirm by making a mark on the self-affirmation, with or without assistance, witnessed by another person.
  • (3) The return envelope shall not be required to have a flap covering the signature or otherwise impede the use of a signature verification device.
  • (vi) In each jurisdiction subject to the requirements of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 USC 10503, regarding bilingual election requirements, the ballots, affidavits, instruction cards and other necessary supplies shall be provided in in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language; provided that where the language of the applicable minority group is oral or unwritten or, in the case of Alaskan natives and American Indians, if the predominant language is historically unwritten, the chief election officer is only required to furnish oral instructions, assistance, or other information relating to registration and voting.
(g) Replacement ballots
  • (i) An eligible voter may obtain a replacement ballot if the ballot was destroyed, spoiled, lost, or for some other reason not received by the eligible voter by contacting the chief election officer. An eligible voter may obtain a ballot if a mail ballot packet was not sent to the voter because the eligibility of the voter could not be determined at the time the mail ballot packets were mailed. An eligible voter can obtain a replacement ballot at a voter service center for any reason. The chief election officer shall keep a record of each ballot issued in accordance with this section.
  • (ii) The voter may submit the replacement ballot request by telephone, by mail, electronically, or in person.
  • (iii) The chief election officer may prescribe a replacement ballot application request procedure that shall include information that allows the clerk to verify the registration of the voter and ensure that another ballot has not been returned by the voter.
  • (iv) Upon receipt of a completed replacement ballot application request, the clerk shall:
  • (1) verify the registration of the voter and ensure that another ballot has not been returned by the voter;
  • (2) record that the voter has requested a replacement ballot;
  • (3) mark the return identification envelope as containing a replacement ballot; and
  • (4) issue the replacement ballot package by mail or make the ballot package available for pick-up by the voter.
(h) Mail ballot return; drop off locations and polling places
  • (i) To cast a valid ballot, the voter shall return the return envelope containing the secrecy envelope or secrecy sleeve with the marked ballot:
  • (1) by mail so that the return envelope is postmarked as of the date of the election;
  • (2) by personal delivery at any place of deposit no later than the closing time of the polls on the date of the election; provided that any voter who is standing in line at a place of deposit at that time on the date of the election with the intent of returning a ballot and casting a vote shall be allowed to vote; or
  • (3) by personal delivery to any voter service center no later than the closing time on the date of the election; provided that any voter who is standing in line at a voter service center at that closing time on the date of the election with the intent of returning a ballot and casting a vote shall be allowed to vote.
  • (ii) A voter may designate another person to return the ballot by any of the means listed in the previous paragraph. The person designated shall return the ballot in person, or put the ballot in the mail, no later than three days after receiving it from the voter or before the close of the polls on election day, whichever time period is shorter. A ballot shall not be disqualified from being counted because it was returned or mailed more than three days after the designated person received it from the voter, provided that the ballot is returned by the designated person before the close of voter service centers on election day or postmarked by election day.
  • (iii) If a ballot is returned by mail but the envelope lacks a postmark, the ballot shall be treated as if it had been postmarked by election day.
  • (iv) For any election, there must be a minimum number of mail ballot drop-off locations where mail ballots may be deposited equal to at least one drop-off location for each ten thousand registered voters in the county; except that, if the district or political subdivision for which the election is being conducted is less populous than the county, the chief election officer shall designate at least one mail ballot drop-off location in the district or political subdivision. The drop-off locations shall be arrayed throughout the county in a manner that provides the greatest convenience to voters.
  • (v) The minimum number of drop-off locations described in paragraph (i) of this subsection shall accept mail ballots delivered by voters during, at a minimum,
  • (1) the ten days prior to and including the day of the election and during any established early voting period, including weekends;
  • (2) reasonable business hours;
  • (3) on the day of the election, for a period of eight or more hours, but must be open at least the same hours as voter service centers.
  • (vi) Each place of deposit designated under this section shall prominently display a sign stating that the location is an official ballot drop site.
  • (vii) The chief election officer may add additional drop-off and polling center locations as necessary.
(i) Returned ballots
  • (i) Once the ballot is returned, an election judge or an automated signature verification system approved by the secretary of state shall first qualify the submitted ballot by
  • (1) comparing the information on the return envelope with the registration records to determine whether the ballot was submitted by an eligible voter who has not previously voted in the election; and
  • (2) comparing the signature of the eligible voter on the return envelope with the signature of the eligible voter on file in the office of the chief election officer or in the statewide voter registration system.
  • --(a) If, upon comparing the signature of an eligible voter on the return envelope with the signature of the eligible voter on file in the office of the chief election official or in the statewide voter registration system, the election judge determines that the signatures do not match, or if an automated verification system is unable to determine that the signatures match, or if the envelope is unsigned, then two other election judges of different political party affiliations shall simultaneously compare the signatures.
  • --(b) If both other election judges agree that the signatures do not match or agree that the envelope is unsigned, the chief election officer shall, within three days after the signature deficiency has been confirmed, but in no event later than two days after election day, notify the voter of the deficiency using all available contact information (including by telephone, text message, email and postal mail) and send and email to the eligible voter at the addresses indicated in the registration records a letter explaining the discrepancy in signatures, a form for the eligible voter to confirm that the voter returned a ballot, and instructions regarding how to return the form by mail, email, and fax. If the chief election officer receives the form within fourteen days after election day confirming that the voter returned a ballot to the chief election officer and enclosing a copy of the elector's identification, and if the ballot is otherwise valid, the ballot shall be counted. Acceptable identification shall include, at a minimum, the forms of identification acceptable for voter registration under the laws of STATE. If the eligible voter returns the form indicating that the voter did not return a ballot to the chief election officer, or if the eligible voter does not return the form within fourteen days after election day, the self-affirmation on the return envelope shall be categorized as incorrect, the ballot shall not be counted.
  • --(c) In the case of a disagreement among the election judges as to whether the signature of an eligible voter on the return envelope matches the signature of the eligible voter stored in the statewide voter registration system, the signatures are deemed to match, and the election judge shall follow the procedures concerning the qualification and counting of mail ballots.
  • (ii) If the ballot so qualifies and is otherwise valid, the election judge shall indicate in the pollbook that the eligible voter cast a ballot and deposit the ballot in an official ballot box.
  • (iii) A mail ballot is valid and shall be counted only if it is returned in the return envelope, the self-affirmation on the return envelope is signed and completed by the eligible voter to whom the ballot was issued, and the information on the return envelope is verified in accordance with subsection (i) of this section. Mail ballots shall be counted in the same manner provided for counting paper ballots or for counting electronic ballots. If the election official determines that an eligible voter to whom a replacement ballot has been issued has returned more than one ballot, the first ballot received is the accepted ballot. All candidates and issues for which the voter is eligible to vote will be counted on the accepted ballot.
  • (iv) If, by the close of polls, a voter deposits a ballot at a drop-off location in a county in which the voter does not reside, the clerk, upon discovering that fact, shall timely deliver the ballot to the clerk of the county in which the voter resides, who shall accept the ballot for processing.
  • (v) Ballot processing, including signature verification and ballot counting shall begin fifteen days before the election.
  • (vi) All valid ballots shall be counted as provided in the relevant election law and in the rules promulgated by the secretary of state.
(j) Deficient return envelopes
  • (i) If a return identification envelope is returned with an unsigned affirmation; the affirmation signature does not match a reference signature image; or a return identification envelope contains another condition that would not allow the counting of the ballot, the clerk shall make an attempt to notify the voter by first class mail, telephone, text message, or electronic mail to inform the voter of the procedure to correct the deficiency, and provide any forms required for that procedure. The voter shall have fourteen business days after the date of the election to cure the deficiency.
  • (ii) If there is no reference signature in the records of the chief election officer, the ballot shall not be considered deficient for that reason, and the signature on the envelope shall be considered the reference signature to be retained in the records of the chief election officer.
  • (iii) The chief election officer must adopt rules regarding requirements and procedures for correcting deficient return identification envelopes.
  • (iv) The counting of ballots and disclosure of subsequent election results may continue during the time period permitted to cure a deficiency under this section.
  • (v) The clerk's inability to contact voters under this section shall not be grounds for a contest for cause.
(k) Voter service centers
  • (i) Voter service centers shall be established at the office of the chief election officer, and at additional locations within each county to service the particular needs of a county's voters to register to vote, update voter registration information, obtain replacement ballots if needed, and vote in person.
  • (ii) For any election, the chief election officer shall designate voter service and polling centers equal to no fewer than one per every ten thousand registered voters in the county; except that each county shall have no fewer than one voter service and polling center.
  • (iii) In addition to the voter service centers required by the previous paragraph, the chief election officer shall designate additional voter service centers to address the needs of voters
  • (1) in each jurisdiction subject to Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 USC 10503, relating to bilingual election requirements;
  • (2) in rural communities and on Native American tribal lands where access to mail or to other voter service centers may be limited due to distance, travel conditions, or other considerations;
  • (3) who are people of color;
  • (4) who are students;
  • (5) in other historically marginalized communities.
  • (iv) Voter service centers shall first open on the first day of early voting that is prescribed by applicable state law and be open during any early voting period, but in no event shall open later than the tenth business day preceding the day of the election, and shall be open at least during the hours of 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., or 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., on weekdays, except that beginning 8 days before election day, voter service center must remain open during the hours of 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., or 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on Saturdays and holidays, and 10:00 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays; except that a voter service center must remain open for a total of at least 8 hours on any holiday during the early voting period and a total of at least 14 hours on the final weekend during the early voting period. On the date of the election, voter service centers shall remain open during regular business hours and until the closing time prescribed by law. Voter service centers shall be open at the same times statewide.
  • (v) Voter service centers shall be located in facilities that are accessible to people with disabilities, or can be made accessible to people with disabilities for the duration of the voting period, and shall provide equipment accessible to voters with disabilities, as required under applicable federal law.
  • (vi) Voter service centers in jurisdictions subject to Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 USC 10503, relating to bilingual election requirements shall
  • (1) employ at least one poll worker per shift who is fluent in the minority language that makes the jurisdiction subject to that law, and who is responsible for assisting voters in that language, and
  • (2) ensure that that worker is clearly identified to voters as a person who can offer assistance in that language.
  • (vii) In determining the location of voter service centers as compared to polling sites used in the last general election prior to the passage of this Act, there shall be no polling place adjustments that disproportionately impact people of color, Native Americans, limited-English proficient citizens, people with disabilities, or students.
  • (viii) Each voter service center shall make available on demand every ballot in the jurisdictions served by the voter service center.