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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.

AIRED: September 16, 2020 | 0:05:15
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TRANSCRIPT

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.

DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States: 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.

LT. GOV. SPENCER COX (R-UT): 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.

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.

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.

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), Presidential Candidate: 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, ProPublica: 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.