Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has been making the rounds in local and national media in recent months discussing the differences between universal vote-by-mail systems and the absentee ballot process that will allow Alabamians to cast ballots from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the moment, only five states allow universal mail-in voting — meaning ballots are automatically sent out to every registered voter and are then mailed back to election officials. In Alabama, voters have to request an absentee ballot to receive one and then mail it back once it’s completed.
This year only, any registered voter can vote absentee by checking the box that reads “I have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls” on their ballot application. This summer, two advocacy groups sued Merrill’s office seeking to have those required “excuses” for absentee voting eliminated altogether due to COVID-19. That case is still pending in Montgomery County, though.
In the meantime, the absentee voting option is still available, and Merrill said there are some important steps that distinguish Alabama’s process from “universal vote by mail” states.
According to Merrill, the absentee process eliminates a lot of the security concerns and the potential for errors in a universal vote-by-mail system. For instance, he noted that — like in-person voters in Alabama — those applying for an absentee ballot have to submit a copy of valid photo identification.
While some other states are considering adopting a universal mail-in system ahead of November’s general election, Merrill argued there are financial and logical hurdles that would make that a bad option in Alabama.
“To initiate the process of voting by mail, you need to make sure that your state is already receiving ballots returned by mail at a rate of around 60 percent. In Alabama, we currently return approximately 4 percent of ballots by mail,” Merrill said. “Even in successful states, full implementation of universal vote-by-mail efforts has taken about five years, not five months like some states are trying to do.”
Merrill also argued the cost of a full-scale, vote-by-mail effort would be significantly higher.
Currently, a presidential election cycle with a primary, runoff and a general election costs Alabama around $16.5 million, but according to his office, the additional postage, security measures and extra poll workers needed to implement a vote-by-mail system would drive the cost for the state up closer to $60 million.
The potential for fraud to occur in vote-by-mail systems has also been the source of political debate in recent months. President Donald Trump has previously claimed, without much supporting evidence, mail-in voting leads to widespread voter fraud. Most major studies haven’t uncovered any large-scale attempts to manipulate ballots, but there have been plenty of anecdotal reports over the years.
According to Merrill, the additional security steps in the absentee ballot process cut down on the potential for vote manipulation and voter fraud. He also noted his office has worked to clean up voter rolls.
“Since I took office in January 2015, we’ve set records for the number of new, restarted voters in Alabama, but we’ve also removed more than 920,000 people from the state’s voter rolls over that same time period because they’ve either moved away, passed away or become an inactive voter,” he said.
The “purging” of voter rolls can technically occur at any time local election officials confirm a registered voter is no longer alive or no longer within a certain voting precinct. However, large-scale reviews of which registered voters are no longer participating in local elections only take place every four years and won’t happen again in Alabama until January 2021 — two months after the general election.
Another issue that has driven national conversations about mail-in voting is the current struggles of the U.S. Post Office. Over the last two weeks, newly appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s planned cost-cutting measures have been blamed for shipping backlogs and have sparked worries the delivery of ballots could be delayed in November.
Asked about the concerns with USPS’s ability to handle an influx of ballots, Merrill said Alabama voters worried about that should go ahead and request or cast their absentee ballot as soon as possible. He also said state law allows Alabamians to return ballots through commercial carriers as well as U.S. Mail.
“Anybody who wants to vote by mail through our absentee process needs to go ahead and do so today,” Merrill said. “The ballot is not going to change, and if anyone is concerned about when it will be received, there’s no need to wait.”
Absentee ballot applications can be downloaded online or requested by visiting or calling the local Absentee Election Manager’s office, and the deadline for submitting applications is Oct. 29. All completed ballots have to be returned to an Absentee Election Manager or postmarked by Nov. 2.
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