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The 2020 general election has officially begun as the first ballots in the country were mailed out Friday in North Carolina — nearly two months before Election Day.
In our region, ballots start getting mailed out the first week in October in D.C. In Maryland you have until October 20 to request an absentee ballot, and until October 23 in Virginia. For those concerned about trusting the USPS to deliver your ballot on time, there will be ballot drop-off locations provided in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
People will still be able to vote in-person, but because of COVID-19 there will be fewer polling locations, which could mean long lines on November 3. In-person early voting begins on October 27 in D.C. and October 26 in Maryland. In Virginia, early voting runs from September 18 through October 31.
So, how efficient and reliable will these voting options be? And what’s the best way to make sure your vote is counted?
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll be speaking with Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson on the unspoken caste system that has shaped America. But first, the November 3rd election is less than 60 days away, an election that's already unlike any other, but is the D.C. region prepared for it?
KOJO NNAMDICOVID-19 means many will want to avoid in-person voting. And in many places there will be fewer polling locations than in a normal presidential election. But there are also creative new places to vote including Capital One Arena. But how efficient and how reliable will these voting options be? And what's the best way to make sure your vote is counted? Joining me now is Martin Austermuhle. He's a Reporter with WAMU. Martin, thank you for joining us.
MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIMartin, before we get to whether the region is prepared for this year's general election, can you let people know the various ways they can vote in D.C., Maryland and Virginia?
AUSTERMUHLEYeah, it's weird, because usually elections voting is kind of like you're on autopilot. You know where your polling places is. You know you go there the day of the election and you cast your ballot. Well, this year like you said because of the pandemic, it is all over the place. There's a number of ways you can vote. So a lot of places -- every jurisdiction in the Washington region will still have polling places, but in some parts it's going to be fewer than expected.
AUSTERMUHLESo take Virginia, Virginia is going to have all the usual polling places it would have during a normal election. In the District and in Maryland, they've consolidated polling places so that's there's fewer of them. But you have bigger ones. So like you said Capital One Arena, Nats Park, FedEx Field is going to be used as polling site over at Prince George's County. So those are the sorts of polling places you'll have there.
AUSTERMUHLENow, all the jurisdictions, of course, have absentee voting as an option. In Virginia anybody can vote absentee. And it's the same in D.C. and Maryland. But in the District everybody is being proactively mailed the ballot. So if you're a registered voter in the District you should be getting a ballot in the mail by October. In Maryland, unlike in their primary they're requested -- they're asking that voters request an absentee ballot so they can vote that way.
AUSTERMUHLESo those are the main ways that people are voting. I mean, again, polling places, absentee voting. There's some very limited experiments with voting via email. But that's usually reserved for voters that are oversees or voters who have some sort of disability. But that's what you got to remember. You can vote by mail, you can vote in-person.
NNAMDIWell, let's be clear here. Exactly where in our region do you have to request a ballot and where will one come to registered voters automatically?
AUSTERMUHLEGreat question. And I think we're going to be repeating this a lot until Election Day or before Election Day.
NNAMDII think so too.
AUSTERMUHLEIf you live in the District you will be sent a ballot. They're going to send every registered voter a ballot. Now, of course, that means there could be hiccups and you may not end up getting a ballot. But you can still then proactively request one. In Maryland they're asking that voters request an absentee ballot. So you either, you can go online. You can call your local Election Board. You can call the State Board of Election, but you actually have to fil out a form and say, I would like an absentee ballot. That's the same process in Virginia.
AUSTERMUHLENow what Virginia did this year is that they removed the excuses that you once needed to get an absentee. You used to have to list 1 of 20 excuses. Those no longer exist. Anybody can vote absentee even you just literally don't want to go outside. That is enough of an excuse to get an absentee ballot in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
NNAMDIMartin, Friday ballots were mailed out in North Carolina. When will they start going out in D.C., Maryland and Virginia?
AUSTERMUHLESo D.C. officials say they're going to start mailing every voter a ballot come the first week of October. So that means the first week or two of October people should be getting them in the mail. In Maryland, those who have requested absentee ballots should start seeing those late September, early October. And Virginia is going to be even earlier than that. They're going to start mailing out absentee ballots within the next two weeks or so. And the reason they're doing that is because they have an early voting period that actually starts September 18th. It's officially called in-person absentee voting, but it's effectively early voting. And to line up with that they have to send out their ballots earlier than anywhere else in the region.
AUSTERMUHLESo if you're a Virginia voter you could well see a ballot as soon as the next two weeks. But another two weeks after that D.C. and Maryland will start getting their ballots in the mail too.
NNAMDIMartin, because of COVID-19 and the majority of poll workers generally being older there were some concerns about not having enough election workers in the area. Is that still a concern?
AUSTERMUHLEIt's not. And it's actually flipped. So about a month and a half ago, my colleague Dominique Maria Bonessi and myself reported a story about the situation of poll workers in the District and in Maryland. And at that time this was mid-summer. Every election official we talked to was in crisis mode, because they said the majority of our poll workers are -- tend to be older. Lots of them are backing out, because they don't want to be working at a poll during a pandemic, which makes sense. So we're looking for a whole new crew of poll workers and these are thousands upon thousands of people.
AUSTERMUHLENow, I did a story about a week and a half ago and I talked to officials across the region. And they all said, we're actually now over flowing with poll worker volunteers. I mean, the District is getting 200 to 250 volunteer applications a week. They need 4,000 volunteers for the election. There are already that many people just lined up to train. Over in Arlington I talked to an election official, who said they've already got more volunteers, more poll workers than they think they're going to need for Election Day itself. So generally speaking people have heard the message that they need to volunteer. They need to step up especially younger poll workers.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd so a lot of election officials think there's this new generation of poll workers that are coming up through the ranks to respond to the fact that older poll workers are stepping aside.
NNAMDIThese people are taking away my retirement options. I always assumed that when I retired I'd become a poll worker. These young people are taking away my retirement options. Joining us now is Gilberto Zelaya, Community Empowerment and Public Information Officer with Montgomery County Board of Elections. Gilberto, thank you very much for joining us.
GILBERTO ZELAYAMy pleasure, Kojo. How are you?
NNAMDII am well. Gilberto, does Montgomery County have enough election workers to serve the community?
ZELAYAYeah. So there's a process. Keep in mind even though we have hundreds of applicants, it doesn't mean that necessarily all of them will meet the requirements. Obviously, you must be a registered voter in Maryland, at least 16 years of age and, of course, a U.S. citizen in order to register to vote. Once the individuals submits their applications our staff will confirm that they are registered. They'll be given in online quiz and some material they need to review before taking said quiz. And once they pass the quiz there's a virtual component of training and also a hands on component.
ZELAYASo once you pass all those checks off your list, then we could move forward to assigning an individual to serve. However, we do need individuals who are bilingual. That speak other languages beyond the Queen's English, keep in mind Montgomery County has four out of the most 10 diverse cities in American, which is Rockville, Gaithersburg, Germantown and Silver Spring. And so because of that call we are looking for individuals with bilingual capabilities to help a diverse electorate.
ZELAYAAnd finally Montgomery County is under Section 203 of the 1975 Voter Rights Act, which means that the entire process here in Montgomery County is in English and in Spanish, because of said requirement. And Prince George's County is proactive in which they do use the materials that we provide our voters that aren't bilingual.
NNAMDIHere is Steve in Chevy Chase. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEYeah. Thank you. My situation is this. For the June primary, which was June 2nd, I sent away a request for an absentee ballot. I received it on June 1st. I filled it out. I dropped it in the mailbox. Then I was told, well, as long as it's postmarked June 2nd, that's okay. So I was concerned about this time. So weeks ago I applied for an absentee ballot. When you fill out the application it asked, do you want it by internet or by mail? And I said, Internet. But then they said, Okay, when you get it by internet, you download it. You fill it out. But then you have to mail it back. You're not allowed to email it back.
STEVESo my question is, I was a little unsure what to do. Should I bring it over there to an early voting place? Can I drop it in a blue box? They haven't told us where the drop boxes are going to be. I just want to make sure for the actual election that it's not like the day before the election I'm getting the ballot. I want to make sure it's received.
STEVESo then the lady on the phone told me basically what President Trump said the other day is, if you fill up early voting and you check on your ballot and it hasn't been recorded, you can vote then. And they give you a provisional ballot. I don't want to mess with that. So I'm sort of confused what to do with this internet ballot, which is not so internet. I've got to mail it again.
NNAMDIAnd, Steve, you've succeeded in confusing me. Hopefully we haven't confused Gilberto. Gilberto, can you advice Steve about what to do?
ZELAYAYeah. Thank God, I was sitting down for that question. So yes. So great question, great question. So number one is yes, you request it to a web delivery ballot. When you receive the log in and password from the State Board of Elections that will also include all of the locations where the ballot drop boxes will be available for you to deposit, if you want to bypass the United States Postal System.
ZELAYAThe other thing I'd like to inform you, the reason why we were looking at encouraging voters to vote the traditional postal mail ballot is because then once we get your web delivery ballot that you will print at home, we will need to duplicate that, which kind of lengthens and it puts the administrative burden on our bipartisan canvassing to duplicate your ballot, because your eight and a half by eleven sheet of paper you're going to print at home cannot go through our scanners here at the office. So that's a separate issue, obviously.
ZELAYASo regarding your mail-in ballot in the packet that you would download from the state, you'll have all the instructions, all the bells and whistles, the voter oath that you would need to submit also with your ballot. You will need to pay postage. And if you bypass the postal service, you will have a listing of all the ballot drop boxes in Montgomery County and the corresponding dates of installation, when they will be available for you to deposit your box. Your second question about what if you change your mind possibly and you want to vote in-person. Correct. You will need to a vote a provisional ballot because on your voter record it states you requested to vote mail-in ballot via web delivery.
ZELAYAAnd so once we initiate our canvass, which mail-in ballots will start being counted October 1st. But those results would not be released until the last vote center has closed in Maryland on November 3rd. And so if you do decide to vote in-person at an early voting location from the 26 of October through the 2nd of November or in-person at a local vote center, which you're not necessarily tied to the location in your neighborhood, you definitely will need to vote a provisional. And that provides a safeguard for the sanctity of our system, but also provides you the opportunity to vote only once.
NNAMDISteve, thank you very much and good luck. Of course, we were talking with Steve specifically about Montgomery County. Gilberto, Martin described the various ways people can vote in Maryland. But talk about what Election Day will look like in Montgomery County. How many polling places will be open and what kind of turnout are you expecting? We only have about a minute left in this segment.
ZELAYAOkay. So quickly. So keep in mind that the traditional neighborhood precinct level polling places are being consolidated to vote centers. We will have about 39 vote centers in Montgomery County. So you're not tied technically to your locality. All that information will be provided in the sample ballot, which we will mail you early October towards the end of September.
ZELAYAAnd in point you could go to any of the 11 early voting locations that will be converted to vote centers in addition to a local Maryland Montgomery County high school as locations. And or we've added the White Oak Community Center, the Nancy Dacek North Potomac Community Center and the Marriot Conference Center in Rockville or North Potomac as they call it. So none the less, you have options. You're not tied to your neighborhood precinct. Look out for your sample ballot. All of this information is also on our website. And you can contact us at 240-777-8500 or on our website.
NNAMDIIf you happen to be living in Montgomery County. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about voting in this region in the upcoming election. And joining us now is Samuel Ashworth, a Ballot Clerk with the D.C. Board of Elections. Samuel, thank you for joining us.
SAMUEL ASHWORTHIt's such a pleasure to be here. Thanks.
NNAMDIYou are set to do this for the first time, being a ballot clerk. What made you volunteer in the midst of this pandemic?
ASHWORTHWell, I think it's the same thing that is motivating a lot of young people to do it, which is the fact that young people need to step up. I myself had COVID for about a month back in April and I don't recommend it. But after I got better having some presumably, hopefully some level of immunity to it, I figure that the best way to grab an oar in this election would be to make sure that the same things that we saw playing out in D.C. and nationwide during the primaries didn't happen again.
ASHWORTHSo knowing that the typical type of poll worker, who was somebody over 61 was more at risk and less likely to be able to show up, I figured it was the natural thing to do. I also always kind of wanted to do it. It seemed like a fascinating way to watch an election unfold.
NNAMDIMartin Austermuhle, our region's first experiment with widespread mail-in voting happened in June with the primary and a lot went wrong. What were the issues and what is the Board of Elections doing to address those issues for what will be a much larger turnout in November?
AUSTERMUHLERight. So in June Maryland mailed everybody a ballot proactively. So if you were a Maryland voter you got a ballot. Now there were some issues there with people not getting ballots or getting ballots late. And there was concerns with the company that was contracted to handle all the mailings. And that was part of the reason that come November, Governor Hogan decided and the Board of Elections decided they rather go for a system where you had to request an absentee ballot.
AUSTERMUHLENow D.C. went the other way. It flipped. Instead of making people request absentee ballots they're sending everybody a ballot. And I think they did so because they realize that they're absentee ballot request process was based on very old technology and had a whole bunch of hiccups. So there were a lot of voters that voted absentee. Something like 80 plus thousand and most of them got their ballots as they requested them. But there were still a lot of voters that didn't get them or got them late or when they sent them back in they couldn't track them to find out if they had been counted.
AUSTERMUHLESo D.C. just decided instead of making people request them we'll just send everybody a ballot. So they've contracted with a specialty mail house that is going to mail out these ballots. It's going to have special tracking software so you can check where you ballot is as it comes to you or as you send it back in after you voted. So, you know, they've decided to address the hiccups by basically making everybody get a ballot.
NNAMDIMartin, at Capital One Arena where the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals play will be a voting place on November 3rd. Is that expected to help alleviate long lines and perhaps make people more comfortable about voting in-person?
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, that's the idea behind these like massive vote centers. Now there's a couple of ways to look at it. You know, the Capital One Arena, Nats Park, they're using a couple hotel ballrooms, they are just very big spaces that are used for big events. So the idea is, while we use these, we can staff them with fewer people than we would need to staff like individual level polling precincts. And it will just give people just more space.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd I think there was also this idea that the Capital One Arena or FedEx Field, Nats Parks, there's a sort of kind of element of like, well, why wouldn't you go to Nats Park to vote. It seems like a cool place to cast a ballot. No one has done it before. And this is happening across the country that LeBron James and other basketball players have made it -- made a movement of sorts to get team owners and cities to use arenas as massive vote sites knowing that they're probably safer, because of social distancing. But also because they're linked to sports and sports teams there's going to be more of an attraction to people who might not otherwise vote or who maybe be put off the idea of voting during a pandemic.
NNAMDIMartin, a logistical question. If you're voting in person, do you still just have one designated polling place in D.C.?
AUSTERMUHLENo. You don't. They way they've set it up now instead of the 144 kind of neighborhood level precincts that you would usually have where you go to your precinct that's at church or a school or kind of a rec center down the road, you no longer have that. Instead they're going to be opening about 90 vote center or polling places. And those are basically going to be open to anybody. And that's the same thing with early voting. You just have to show up as a registered voter. And you can show up anywhere. So hence the idea of the Capital One Arena or Nats Park. You don't have to be a voter in Ward 2 or Ward 6 to go there. You can be from anywhere in the city and just decide that you want to go vote at Nats Park and you'll be able to.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Susan Bowyer, a veteran volunteer Election Officer with Fairfax County. Susan Bowyer, thank you for joining us.
SUSAN BOWYERHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou've been an election officer in Fairfax since 2012. Why was it important to you to continue your service and work this election?
BOWYERWell, as you said I'm a longtime volunteer. I get a real kick out of seeing my neighbors come out and helping them vote. And this year certainly is different. I sat out the primary that Virginia held in June just to see how the precautions that the county took worked. Fortunately they did. I've spoken to the county and they have told me that they weren't contacted for any contact tracing from the June election. So that makes me feel better about the precautions that they're taking again in November.
BOWYERI also as Samuel mentioned, I'm on the younger side of the staffers that I've worked with previously. And it just feels like it's important for the county and for my community to have enough personnel and enough young and robust -- I feel like that's an awkward way to put it. But enough people who can help all of us vote both in absentee working at the county getting the ballots out ahead of time, and on the day of.
NNAMDIWell, Susan, you will be working 13 hours on Election Day surrounded by people some of whom you may know, most you probably don't. Does any of this make you nervous?
BOWYERIt certainly does. My precinct sees about 1200 people in a day -- in an average day. I honestly don't know whether that will go up or down this year. I know that this is a highly interested election that certainly people are going to be very engaged in. And I don't know what percentage of people are going to vote absentee versus in-person on the day of. So it will be interesting to see how in-person turnout plays out. And certainly there will be a higher risk of exposure than I have in my normal day where I work at home and I don't see anybody.
BOWYERTo mitigate that, one of the things that I've done is download Virginia's contact tracing app called COVIDwise that will help me know after the fact unfortunately, but it will help me know if I've been exposed while working that day and help me be proactive and monitor my health after the fact.
NNAMDIHere is Christina in Alexandria, Virginia. Christina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTINAHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me. Yeah. So I have been listening and I just wanted to say, this is my first year. I signed up to be a poll worker. And I just -- you know, I have not been politically active in the past. You know, I, of course, have voted, but not really worked in an election at all. And I this year I just felt so compelled to sign up because I'm in, you know, my late 20s and it's just so important to me that everyone come out and vote. And anyone who is either at risk or, you know, previously otherwise would work the election, I want to be there in their place. It's just so important to me to help offer that option.
NNAMDISusan, any advice for Christina, first time.
BOWYERWear your comfy shoes certainly. As Kojo mentioned, it's actually -- it's more like a 15 hour day by the time we setup and close out. Make sure that you're prepared for that. Dress in layers. You know, think of the practical things about being away from your house for a long period of time. And good luck. It's a really wonderful experience.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Christina, and indeed good luck to you. Here's Ruth in Rockville, Maryland. Ruth, your turn.
RUTHThank you very much for taking my call. So I gave the request for a ballot in Montgomery County to the mailman at the post office itself. And he looked at it and he said to his colleague, aren't we supposed to separate these. And I thought, oh, is this a political statement. Now I looked at the site to see whether it's been received and as of today it had not yet been received and this is about two weeks ago. So are they separating these that come in, the request for the ballot, in Montgomery County?
NNAMDICan you respond to that, Gilberto?
ZELAYASo they're not necessarily being separated. The equipment being used at that post officer, there's sorters. And so they expedite those individuals that are sending these mail-in ballot requests to the Board of Elections. We have a particular P.O. Box and address that will expedite us receiving the request. The second thing is give us about another five days to process your application. Right now we have processed to date about 145,000 requests. And we have about 96,000 in the pipeline. And that number is growing every day. So a little bit of patience for everyone once you send your request. And lastly if for some reason within 10 to 15 days that you have not seen a status change, you could submit another application online very easy. Just text the letters vbm V-B-M to 77788 and you could ...
NNAMDIOh, I think I'm not hearing Gilberto anymore. He might have been cut off. But hopefully, Ruth, that was helpful to you. We are going to have to take a short break. When we come back we'll be talking with Pulitzer Prize winning Author Isabel Wilkerson on the unspoken caste system that has shaped America. In the meantime, Martin Austermuhle, Gilberto Zelaya, Susan Bowyer and Samuel Ashworth, thank you all for joining us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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