With increased conversation about ballot-by mail rules, voters are also wondering how the process actually works. In Texas, a mail-in ballot travels a long way from initial request to counting on Election Day. Voters are often left wondering what’s happening to that ballot, and how they can keep tabs on it.
Sara Goodman submitted her application for a mail-in ballot – also called an absentee ballot – before the primary election in March. The 68-year-old Austin resident opted to vote by mail because of COVID-19. On her application, she checked the “annual” box, to make sure she would receive a mail-in ballot for all elections held this year. She asked Texas Decides about her ballot for the November 3 election.
“I would like to know when Travis County is going to be mailing out the mail-in ballots. So I want to know when I should expect to receive it,” Goodman said.
Right now, the answer is unclear.
This year, requests for absentee ballots are at an all-time high, said Travis County clerk Dana DeBeauvoir.
“We had about 63,000 total by mail requests,” she said.
That was for starters. Many more requests have arrived in the past few weeks.
And it’s not just in Austin. In Potter County, where parts of Amarillo are located, Elections Administrator Melynn Huntley faces a similar deluge.
“For lack of a better word, we’re drowning in applications to vote-by-mail,” Huntley said.
There are a lot of steps to verifying eligibility and preparing a ballot, before it’s sent out to an eligible voter.
“Once we receive the application, you have to make sure that they are registered to vote, you make sure the application is in Potter County. And assuming everything is filled out as it’s supposed to be, then it is received into one of our software systems where we track every step of the vote by mail process,” Huntley said.
Huntley’s staff compares the signature on the application, to their copy of the voter’s registration card. And then, they assemble a packet.
“It includes a carrier envelope, the green envelope in which the ballot goes. There’s a letter from the secretary of state. There’s some special instructions for this year and there’s a ballot in there,” she said.
DeBeauvoir said she’s been mailing ballots out to voters “in waves.”
But Goodman is still wondering where her ballot is. In Travis County, there’s a way for her to find out. Votetravis.com is a Web site created by Travis County as a clearinghouse for voting information. Voters who have requested a mail-in ballot can scroll to and click the BBM button – it stands for “ballot by mail’ – and enter their name and some identifying information. If the county has an absentee ballot application on file, or has sent the voter a ballot, the site returns that information.
Turns out, Goodman’s application is on file, but her ballot hasn’t been mailed to her yet.
Unfortunately, not all Texas counties offer online lookup of ballot mailing status.
When her ballot arrives, Goodman will be able to make her choices, sign it, and mail it back. It must be postmarked by Election Day, November 3.
But Goodman isn’t taking any chances. She says when she receives that ballot, she plans to drive some 15 miles to Travis County’s main office, to deliver it in person.
“Voters can drive up, show I.D., sign a signature roster, and then put their by mail ballot directly into the ballot box,” DeBeauvoir said.
It’s important to remember that you can’t deliver a mail-in ballot to a polling place – ballots are only accepted at the county’s designated business office – and you can only deliver your own ballot.
Once Goodman drops off her ballot, it goes into the hands of election staff. The process is the same for ballots received by mail.
“There’s a longstanding procedure for ballots-by-mail that is very tedious, and very manual.. There’s nothing automated about by mail,” DeBeauvoir said.
Workers remove the sealed ballot envelope from the outer envelope – the one with the voter’s identification information. They unseal the ballot and prepare it for scanning. Then they lock it in a vault. Staff use information from the outer envelope to update the list of mail-in voters.
Though not all counties provide status updates before absentee ballots are sent to voters, state law requires elections officials to track and update voter rolls, once ballots are received.
“Once we start in on early voting, we are required to upload the list of everybody who voted to the Texas Secretary of State,” Huntley said. “So you can go in there and you will know that we have received your ballot.”
Ballots won’t be tallied until Election Day, but Goodman and other voters can track their ballots at Vote Texas.gov.
County elections officials say that if you want to reduce the chance of something going wrong along the way, the best thing you can do is to mail in or hand-deliver your ballot as soon as possible.