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Casting Your Ballot Amid COVID-19: Election Q&A With Professor Joshua A. Douglas

How to Vote by Mail in Kentucky. Video by Joshua A. Douglas.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 28, 2020)  If Americans have heard it once, they have heard it a million times by now: this election is different than any other before.

While Election Day is officially just days away on Tuesday, Nov. 3, millions of Americans across the country have already cast their votes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted these races in unprecedented fashion, with dozens of states having expanded mail-in voting access, set up early in-person voting locations and installed ballot drop-off boxes across cities and towns.

UKNow spoke with constitutional law and voting rights expert Joshua Douglas, the Ashland, Inc-Spears Distinguished Research Professor of Law in the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law, to learn more about what Kentucky voters need to know this election season.


UKNow: For Kentuckians casting mail-in ballots, what do they need to know about following the instructions to ensure their ballots are approved and counted?  

Douglas: Check out this short video from Kentucky for Kentucky. Basically, make sure to fill out your selections clearly (including the two constitutional amendments on the back), sign the inner (manila) envelope (but do not remove the flap), put the inner envelope inside the outer (white) envelope, and then also sign the outer envelope. Yes, you need to sign twice.

If you detach the flap by mistake (try not to), just include it all inside the envelope — your vote will still count.

Election officials will be looking at specific features to match a signature, like the way you write certain letters — which is probably consistent even if you think your signature has changed. In the June primary, hardly any voters had issues with signature mismatches. And if there’s a problem, the county clerk must contact you so you can fix it.

All absentee ballots must be delivered to drop boxes by Nov. 3 or postmarked by Nov. 3. Ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 must arrive by Nov. 6. My advice, given that the end of the voting period is only a week away, is to drop it off at one of the secure drop boxes instead of putting it in the mail, just to be sure it doesn’t arrive too late.

UKNow: For Kentucky voters, if they have requested a mail-in ballot, can they change their method and decide later to vote in-person? 

Douglas: Probably not if you have received your absentee ballot. I say “probably” because the law is actually not 100% clear on this point. But if you requested but haven’t received your absentee ballot by Oct. 28, you can go vote in person. You’ll have to explain that your ballot didn’t arrive and tell the poll workers that you want to cancel your absentee ballot request.

UKNow: Once you mail your ballot to your county clerk’s office, can you change your vote or correct a mistake? Are county clerks required to contact any voter that makes an error on their mail-in ballot?  

Douglas: You can’t change your vote, but you can fix errors that might otherwise cause your vote not to count. New for this November, the county clerks must contact a voter before rejecting a ballot to give the voter an opportunity to cure the error. In addition, county clerks must accept ballots with minor mistakes, such as forgetting to sign twice if one signature matches (that said, remember to sign twice so you’re not in this situation).

UKNow: There has been much talk since before the primaries surrounding mail-in voter fraud. In your opinion, is mail-in voting safe — why or why not?

Douglas: Yes, it is perfectly safe. We have mechanisms in place to ensure we do not allow fraudulent votes, and we have absentee balloting tracking. You can go online and see when you’ve requested your ballot, when the county clerk has sent out your ballot, and when they have received your returned ballot. Ballot tracing avoids many problems with potential fraud and also improves transparency in the process.

We also have signature matching and in the Commonwealth of Kentucky voters have to sign twice. Mail-in voting is safe, especially when you compare the risk of voter fraud to the numbers of American citizens we have enfranchised with more robust voting rules and options this year.

Let me put it this way: voter fraud is exceedingly, exceedingly rare, and election officials are vigilant to ensure it doesn’t happen. Expanded mail-in voting balloting makes it much easier for so many people to vote.

UKNow: Do voters need to bring a photo ID to vote in Kentucky?

Douglas: If you are voting via absentee ballot, your application online satisfies the new photo ID law. If you are voting in person either early or on Nov. 3, you will need to show a photo ID, but lots of kinds of IDs count (including student IDs), and no expiration date is required on the ID; thus, expired IDs are sufficient.

If you don’t have a photo ID, you will have to show a non-photo ID (like a credit card) and fill out a one-page form indicating a reason for not having an ID (lack of financial means to obtain one, COVID-related reason, etc.). So yes, Kentucky does have a new photo ID requirement this year, but it’s pretty mild (I advocated strongly for that).

Importantly, you can’t be turned away for not having a photo ID or for any other issue. Instead, if you can’t comply (for example, if you didn’t bring any ID whatsoever), election officials must offer you a provisional ballot, which will count so long as you visit the county clerk’s office to fix the problem.

UKNow: What options do Kentuckians have if they don’t cast a mail-in ballot? Are there resources available to help them find polling locations?

Douglas: Early voting occurring now through Nov. 2, during normal county clerk hours, as well as on Saturday, Oct. 31.

Check this website to find a polling place. Voters are not assigned to specific precincts but can visit any voting location in the county.

UKNow: Can people vote like normal on Election Day, Nov. 3?

Douglas: Yes! But your normal precinct probably won’t be open. Check this link to find your polling place. Every county will have at least one voting center where anyone in the county may go.

UKNow: When will we know the results?

Douglas: Probably not right away — at least for the presidential election. There will be an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots this year and those take some time to process. And some states — like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — don’t let their election officials begin that process until Nov. 2 or Nov. 3. We could be waiting several days or a week for results in these key states. 

But we should know Kentucky results relatively quickly, as Kentucky counties can begin processing mail-in ballots early (though they can’t actually count the votes until polls close).

For more election and voting updates, Douglas is frequently updating his Twitter account

"I voted" sticker collage
iStock / Getty Images Plus. BackyardProduction.

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