With Election Day just one day away, we know voters still have questions about the voting process and how they can make sure their vote will count. On Friday, Oct. 30, The Beacon’s Celisa Calacal was joined by four local voting experts to answer common questions about voting in Missouri and Kansas.
- Christopher McKinney, chair of Vote KC, a coalition of local groups working to get out the vote here in Kansas City.
- Connie Schmidt, the election commissioner for Johnson County, Kansas
- Denise Lieberman, director and general counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition
- Patrick Miller, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
The following is a selected transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length, clarity and to highlight the most pressing questions. To jump to a specific question, click on the link:
- What to do if you still have your mail ballot
- Can someone drop my ballot off for me in Kansas?
- Can COVID be a reason for absentee voting in Missouri?
- What should voters do if they witness voter intimidation at the polls?
- Do I need a mask to vote?
- Voting a provisional ballot
- What if my name isn’t on the voter rolls?
- What should someone do if they have COVID on Election Day?
- Tracking an absentee ballot in Missouri
- Can a poll worker ask me to remove my mask?
- How are results counted?
What to do if you still have your mail-in ballot
Denise Lieberman: If what you have is a mail-in ballot, the only way that ballot can be returned is through the United States mail. And so you are now out of time. And you should go to the polls on Election Day and cast your ballot. You will need to surrender that mail-in ballot you received in the mail.
However, if you got an absentee ballot, in Missouri, you can return that in person. It can be returned by you as the voter or by a close relative. And the place where you return it is your local election authority headquarters or any satellite absentee voting locations.
The one thing you cannot do in Missouri is return a completed mail-in ballot or absentee ballot at your polling place. However, all voters who have not submitted or turned in, either by mail or in person, a remote ballot, can surrender those ballots on election day and cast a regular ballot at their polling place.
Connie Schmidt: In Johnson County, Kansas and throughout the whole State of Kansas, it’s fairly easy for the people who maybe still have their mail ballot at home. We have eight dropboxes that are election office dropboxes stationed around the county and they have been well received by the voters. Those dropboxes will be open and we’ll close them at 7 p.m. on election night. So if you’re still holding your mail ballot at home, we encourage you not to put it in the mail, and instead take it to one of the eight dropboxes.
On Election Day, in Kansas, you can also take your mail ballot, voted mail ballot, to any of our 176 polling places. We just encourage you to do your mail ballot and get it to us as soon as possible.
Patrick Miller: I know a lot of people, my students, friends of mine who maybe have gotten confused because they’re hearing things from friends who live elsewhere, and then thinking that the rules in another state are what apply to them. We have some states in this country where those ballots have to be back the day before the election. We have some states where your only option is to return them by mail, and where dropboxes are not allowed. So it’s really important that voters know in their state what those rules are and then know in their county, what are their options for dropboxes or taking those ballots back to certain places? Because the rules we have in Missouri are not what we have here in Kansas.
But if you’re not able to take that ballot back in person, in Kansas, you do have until Election Day to get that ballot in the mail. As long as it’s postmarked by Election Day and it arrives that Friday after the election, it can count.
Can someone drop my ballot off for me in Kansas?
Schmidt: Yes. Anyone can return a voted mail ballot for another voter. But that voter has to grant that person permission. And the person returning the ballot envelope has to sign in section two on the back of the voted ballot envelope that they have permission from the voter to return the ballot to a dropbox or to our office. And we encourage all of our voters to trust and know the person that you’re giving your ballot to, and that person does have to, according to state law, sign on the back of that voter’s ballot envelope that they are returning it on behalf of the voter.
Can COVID be a reason for absentee voting in Missouri?
Lieberman: Missouri is, in fact, an outlier when it comes to the rest of the country. The vast majority of states, 34 states plus the District of Columbia, allow any voter to cast an absentee ballot for any reason. Here in Missouri we do not have early voting and also in Missouri, you have to have a reason to vote absentee. However, this year, lawmakers did pass a new law to address COVID. And so, yes, voters who have or are in an at risk category for COVID-19 can cast an absentee ballot. And that’s going to include any voter over the age of 65 as well as voters in medical, at risk categories.
The lawmakers also expanded provisions to allow any Missouri voter to vote by mail this year. But it is now too late to get a mail-in ballot. But you can still vote absentee in person at your local election authority or a satellite voting location. You can vote absentee in person until 5:00 p.m. on Monday, November 2nd at your local election authority office or designated satellite voting locations. And that’s a way to avoid having to deal with your polling place on election day.
Voter intimidation at the polls
Lieberman: You cannot photograph inside the polling place on election day, though you can outside the polling place.
Here in Missouri, the Missouri Nonpartisan Election Protection effort, we have almost 1,500 volunteers signed up. They’ll be monitoring the polls on election day. And we have several hundred attorneys that will be responding to calls from Missouri and Kansas into 866-OUR-VOTE. Any calls from Missouri and Kansas are going to be answered locally by attorneys here in Missouri and Kansas.
The law significantly limits who’s allowed to be inside a polling place. But political parties are allowed to designate individuals as challengers. And they can be inside the polling place. But they are not allowed to speak to voters directly, nor are they allowed to disrupt the voting process.
Now, outside the polling place, that’s a different matter. In Missouri, there is a 25-foot buffer zone. And nobody can be within 25 feet of a polling place. That’s designed to give voters clear passage to get in and out.
But beyond that, people have a First Amendment right to be at the polling place. However, nobody at a polling place can engage in activity that disrupts the voting process, that impedes voters’ access to the voting process, or that intimidates voters in any way. Like I said, we will have monitors out at most polling places in the State of Missouri on election day. You can speak to one of our election protection monitors. They’ll be masked up, wearing their election protection mask, you can call one of our lawyers at 866-OUR-VOTE. And you can document the situation by taking a photo or taking video on your phone outside the polling place. But you can’t take photos inside the polling place.
Just keep in mind that intimidation of voters in any form, through misinformation, through disruptive activity, by impeding access in and out, or by any activity that is intimidating to voters is illegal under state law and under federal law. And we’ve met, in advance of these elections with local election authorities, with members of the FBI, with law enforcement to establish protocols for reporting and eradicating any such incidents immediately.
Christopher McKinney: And don’t be afraid to speak up, all right? So you have these resources, don’t be afraid to use them. It’s wrong. If you don’t say anything people will feel like it is okay. Don’t not say anything just to avoid the confrontation. You pick up the phone. And you dial 1-866-OUR-VOTE, and you report it. Or you find those election monitors on site, and you tell them. But don’t allow anyone to stop you from voting. Use those resources that are at your disposal.
Schmidt: We will have in Johnson County, for the presidential election, signage posted outside of every voting location, 176 locations on election day, advising our voters if they have a question or a concern, the phone number that they can call to connect with us. And we want to be on the front line of helping our voters in solving any issue they may have.
We’ve done our very best, here, for this election, to create what I’m calling a voter friendly environment for all of our voters. And so the poll agents are allowed by state law, they have to have an authorized form from an authorized agent that has to be turned in to our poll workers in the polling places on election day. And they have to sign a log, and we issue them a poll agent name tag. And there are state requirements for what they can do in a voting location on election day.
And I always tell everyone that there are three people that can be in a voting location on election day in the State of Kansas, and that’s the poll workers, the voters, and an authorized poll agent. And the poll agent has only some statutory things that they’re allowed to do. They can’t go around and talk with all the voters or do anything like that. … There’s also a 250-foot electioneering radius around all of our voting locations, and we control that and be sure that there’s no political signage, or any kind of interference, or intimidation of our voters.
Miller: There’s really … three physical areas that you have to think about. There’s inside of the polling location, which is pretty well-regulated. There is that boundary around the polling location, which varies by state how many feet away that is. A lot of the voter intimidation issues that are being dealt with in recent elections are things that happen outside of that boundary. So let’s say that a state might say that it’s 100 feet away from the polling place, that there can be no electioneering activity, or people can’t congregate within 100 feet of the polling place. What then happens outside of that 100 feet, at 101 or 150? It’s often what’s brought up a lot these days in terms of attempted voter intimidation.
So some of the watchers may be familiar with some of the calls that we’re seeing this year for armed individuals to go to polling places, particularly in African American and Latino communities. And to show presence at those polling places with their weapons, but outside of that boundary so that they’re technically in a free zone. That’s not new to this election. That is something that we’ve seen, really, over the past 30 years, particularly in the south, on the west coast, in minority-heavy communities in particular. Individuals taking photographs of who’s coming in and out of that polling location. Candidates for parties hiring armed security guards and putting them in those technically free zones.
But I would echo that if anyone has any concerns about what’s happening at a polling place, to use some of the resources here or even consider calling law enforcement. So these can be tricky issues, and again, they concern me most in minority-heavy areas. But if you see something, say something. And hopefully something can be done if there is an issue there.
Lieberman: It is our position that that should not necessarily be the first knee jerk reaction, because we know particularly in communities that have been over-policed, that have been subject to police violence where, that voters may not respond well to police presence and that, in fact, the presence of police can sometimes escalate a situation rather that deescalate it. If there’s something violent going on, obviously, 911. But we have encouraged election officials to exercise their authority.
McKinney: If necessary, you should call law enforcement. If a situation presents itself, don’t be intimidated, or don’t feel helpless. Use all of your resources, and if it is necessary to call law enforcement, please do that.
Do you have to wear a mask to vote in Johnson County, Kansas?
Schmidt: We’re under a countywide mask mandate. But our voters, according to the Constitution, cannot be required to wear a mask. And so we’ve done a lot of work to train our poll workers that yes, the poll workers have to wear a mask, but our voters cannot be intimidated, harassed, or made to feel different if they come in without a mask because of a particular reason. They do not have to wear a mask in order to cast their ballot on election day.
Voting a provisional ballot
Schmidt: In Kansas, by state law, we’re only allowed to issue one, and I refer to it as a live ballot. So if you requested a ballot by mail, we sent you a live ballot. And so if you go to vote in person, after we’ve already sent a ballot to you, by state law you have to vote what’s referred to as a provisional ballot. A lot of times people think the word provisional is like a bad word. But it’s not. It’s a safety net for all of our voters.
Provisional balloting means that we have time after the election to research each voter and really drill down with full-time staff doing that work, to find out “Is there a situation there? Is that really an eligible voter? Can we count that vote?” So that’s all done after election day.
Provisional ballots are presented to the county canvas Board in Kansas. And here, that’s going to happen on November 11. Every eligible vote is counted and included in the final, official results that will be approved on November the 12, here, in Johnson County.
Name isn’t on the voter rolls
Lieberman: There might be a number of reasons why your name isn’t on the rolls in Missouri. And it could be a mistake, it could be a typo, or it could be that you’re at the wrong polling place.
Before election day, double check your polling place. In Missouri, you can do that at sos.mo.gov/elections. Many polling places have changed. In Kansas City, there’s less than half of the polling places that there used to be. Although I do need to note that in St. Louis County a voter can cast a ballot at any polling place. And in Kansas City, any voter who’s using an electronic voting machine can cast a ballot at any polling place. However, everywhere else in Missouri, you have to show up at your correct polling place in order for your name to be on the list.
You also should check to see if you got a postcard in the mail. In Missouri, they have to send this out to every voter before election day. And the great thing about this postcard is A) if you get it, you know you’re on the list of registered voters, because it only goes out to registered voters. B) it’s going to list your polling place.
If you go to the polls on Election Day, and they say you’re not on the rolls, the poll worker should check the inactive voter list, and you can still vote, and they should call the local election authority that has access to the broader voter registration database and can figure out what happened with your registration. And if you are in the wrong place, they’re going to direct you to the correct location. And if there’s an error or a typo, and that sometimes happens, you can correct it right then and there at the polling place if there’s a small error.
As a last resort, if they cannot find your registration anywhere, you are entitled to cast a provisional ballot. But in Missouri, that ballot will not count if you’re not at the correct polling place and if you are not, in fact, registered to vote. So if you’re in that situation, I encourage you to call 866-OUR-VOTE and one of our attorneys can go into the database, look up your information, and try and figure out what happened to ensure that you can vote. But no voter should leave a polling place without casting a ballot.
Miller: If there is an issue for you at the polling place, make the effort right then and there to begin to follow up on it. Don’t just leave. … The worst thing you can do is just walk away and give up.
What should someone do if they have COVID on Election Day?
Schmidt: In Kansas, or in Johnson County, at least, we will have signs posted in the accessible handicap spots at each early voting location, that if you need curbside assistance to call a phone number. And that will get you to a person who will notify the supervising judges inside the voting location that they have someone outside that needs to have special treatment. … And we’re providing additional PPE supplies and equipment to all of our poll workers in the event that there is someone who is positive for COVID-19, and is in a car, and is requesting to vote.
Lieberman: It’s best to contact your local election authority immediately as soon as you’re aware of this. Those voters also do have the option of voting curbside at the polls on election day. Also in Missouri, for people who can cast absentee ballots, and if you’re confined due to illness, you do qualify. Those can be returned, not just by the voter but also by a close relative.
Tracking an absentee ballot in Missouri
Lieberman: If you cast your ballot in person, it’s already been vetted, it’s 100% being counted. If you sent your ballot back through the mail or dropped it off, either track through that barcode on the envelope, or call your local election authority to make sure it was received and processed. And if it wasn’t, you have the option of voting in person at the polls on election day. And you can complete what’s called a Lost Ballot Affidavit if you’ve already sent that ballot back in but it’s not been received or processed. You will complete a Lost Ballot Affidavit and vote in person at the polls on election day.
Will I be asked to pull my mask down to verify my photo ID?
Lieberman: In Missouri a photo ID is not required to vote. Voters do have to show some form of identification but it does not have to have a photo. It can also be an ID issued by an election authority, so that postcard you get in the mail. It can be a student ID from a college or university located in Missouri. It can even be a current utility bill or bank statement as long as it has your name and current address.
So voters should not, as a general matter, be asked to remove their masks in order to check in. In fact, a number of jurisdictions in Missouri make masks mandatory for all voters and poll workers. But if your address has changed, … or your name has changed, you may be asked to complete additional statement or paperwork to update your registration address or name.
Schmidt: This is a most unusual election year, the most unusual many of us in election administration have ever tried to orchestrate. There’s a lot of issues. We do have a photo ID requirement by state law in the State of Kansas. And if they have a concern and they actually cannot determine if it is the correct person, we might ask a voter to slide their mask down for a moment. But I’ve told the poll workers, I truly believe that they will use their best judgment and most of the time, they will be able to determine that it is the correct person by other facial characteristics that they can see, such as their eyes, and their stature, and everything.
Election night results
Schmidt: We can begin to data entry, compare signatures, open, and flatten, and electronically store the ballot images as we move along. And so we have been doing that internally in the office. On election night, when the polls close, we will apply the tabulation software to all of our stored ballot images that we received in the mail. And right now, that’s about 130,000. And we’ll add those to all of our in person votes, and we will have a large quantity, probably over one-third of our vote totals, reported out to the media and the candidates before 8 p.m. And then we’ll wait for the polling places to bring their results in after they close the polls. And those will be added in.
So we anticipate we will be fully reported with everything we have on election day, before the 10 o’clock news here in Johnson County. Our provisionals and any mail that is received but postmarked on Election Day, that we receive by the following Friday, will be added in on the days following Election Day. And the provisional ballots eligible to be counted will be added in after the Canvas Board meets on November 11. So we’ll have final, official results on November 12. If it’s a close race on election night, we tell the candidates and the media that we have more votes yet to be counted. So if it’s close, there can be no celebrations, because we’re not finished on election night.
Lieberman: I think that the message that voters in Missouri need to hear as well, is … that we can’t necessarily expect to have results on election night. And that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the process. It means that there is a lot more voting that has to be processed manually. So we know, here in Missouri, in previous elections, because of our restrictive absentee ballot laws, only about 5% of ballots in 2016 were cast by mail. That is significantly higher this year. In some jurisdictions, it’s upwards of 40%. And those ballots have to be processed manually. And so in some jurisdictions, there could be delays in getting results. And then, of course, there’s that two week period where the election authority will also be processing provisional ballots before they have to certify the final election results.
Miller: There’s a legal process for votes to be cast and counted. So I think this year in particular, with as many mail ballots as we have, we really have to shake ourselves free of this notion that we have to know the winner on election day. And there’s something special about that. It’s a nice convenience, but it’s also not one that is realistic in the context of this year. And people also need to understand in that context, that the results you see on Election Day may not reflect the final results. With our mail ballots, and I’m sure people are aware, this is becoming a very big partisan issue this year. In typical years, there’s not really much of a difference in who’s casting mail ballots, Democrats or Republicans.
And in fact, in many years in the past, mail ballots have been very good for Republicans. This year it’s disproportionately Democrats and Independents requesting mail ballots, Republicans looking more likely to vote on election day or early voting going into that. So we may have a number of states where someone might appear to winning on election night. … So be ready to not know the winner. Also be ready for this to go into the courts, possibly.