How does voting by mail actually work? Yahoo News Explains

With so much uncertainty surrounding where things will stand with COVID-19 come November, voting by mail has become a major topic of discussion ahead of the presidential election. This year many Americans are likely to vote by mail for the first time, but there are a lot of questions about the process: Who’s allowed to vote by mail? How are mail-in ballots collected and counted? Does voting by mail lead to fraud? Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward explains.

Video Transcript

JON WARD: With so much uncertainty surrounding where things will stand with COVID-19 come November, voting by mail has become a major topic of discussion.

- The CDC says that health risks from in-person voting are real.

CHUCK TODD: How quickly could you get all 50 states running an election by vote by mail?

COURTNEY JOHNS: Some have been and others still are skeptical of voting by mail.

DONALD TRUMP: People cheat with mail-in voting.

- Access to vote-by-mail ballots is becoming a mainstream issue.

JON WARD: But with so many Americans likely to vote by mail for the first time, there are a lot of questions about the process. Who is allowed to vote by mail? How are mail-in ballots collected and counted? And does vote by mail lead to fraud? Here's what you should know.

First, general elections are run entirely by state governments. Before COVID-19, there were five states that already conducted their elections entirely by mail and another 28 where anyone who wanted to vote by mail could do so without restrictions. There were only 17 states that required someone to have an excuse such as unavoidable travel or a serious illness.

But since COVID, there's still a lot that is up in the air about how the fall elections will be handled, and it's important to remember that no matter what each state decides, demand from voters to cast ballots by mail will likely be so high in the fall that states will need several days after election day to fully count all their ballots. We probably won't know who won the presidential election on election night. So prepare yourself to wait a few days.

So once your vote is cast, how are ballots collected and securely counted? Well, we can look at the five states that have been doing all-mail elections for several years to see what their best practices are. They make sure that each ballot has a barcode so you can track it yourself to make sure it's been received by the state. They also train their election staff how to properly do what's called signature match. That's where they compare the voter's signature on the ballot to what they have on file. The training is intended to ensure that each voter casts their own ballot but also that ballots are not thrown out without a good cause.

But let's say that despite all that you're worried that the postal service might lose your ballot. In that case, some states have secure drop boxes that are operated by elections officials that allow you to bypass the mail. And if you can't drop it off yourself, make sure you know whether your state allows someone else to drop it off for you. In some states, ballot collection is against the law, and we'll be doing a separate video all about that.

TUCKER CARLSON: Well, a lot of people in this country have been suffering through this pandemic, but many of our most ambitious politicians have treated the disaster as a massive opportunity. Probably the biggest goal, though, is to eliminate every remaining barrier to voter fraud in this country, and they plan to do that by enacting nationwide mail-in voting.

JON WARD: There's been a lot of talk, much of it by the president himself, that voting by mail leads to fraud.

DONALD TRUMP: But when you do all mail-in-voting ballots, you're asking for fraud. People steal them out of mailboxes. People print them, and then they sign them, and they give them in, and the people don't even know, or they're double counted.

JON WARD: It's important to be precise when talking about something as vital as the integrity of our elections. The president is incorrect when he says that voting by mail will be substantially fraudulent. He's made a lot of similar statements.

DONALD TRUMP: Mail-in ballots are a very dangerous thing. They're subject to massive fraud.

JON WARD: But it was that one on May 26 that caused Twitter to take the unprecedented step of affixing a fact check to his tweet.

JOHN ROBERTS: This is something highly unusual. The president sent out this tweet at 8:17 this morning. I don't know if you can see, but at the bottom of the screen it says "get the facts about mail-in ballots."

JON WARD: But it's also important to be precise when fact checking claims like these. Fraud does happen occasionally, but it's usually on a very small scale. Most importantly, it's usually committed by insiders-- politicians, election officials, and political operatives.

DAVID MUIR: Bombshell development in North Carolina tonight. There will be a new election. State officials ordering that election in a congressional race amid sweeping allegations of tampered ballots.

- The Harris campaign is being accused of coordinating an effort to collect ballots from voters and either fill them in for Harris or throw them away if the vote was for McCready.

JON WARD: And while the president has made inaccurate claims about the likelihood of widespread fraud even as he himself has voted by mail twice recently, Republicans at the state level are telling their own voters that voting by mail is an easy, convenient, and secure way to cast your ballot. That should tell you a lot about claims of voting by mail helps one party or another. There's no clear path.

And especially in an election like this year when many voters of all ages and party affiliation are likely to want to avoid large crowds this fall, it's very hard to see any clear edge for either side in expanding vote by mail. In fact, the president might actually be hurting his own chances at reelection by discouraging his own voters from casting their ballots this way.