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How to Vote by Mail – and How Not to

by on August 05, 2020 5:00 AM


I like voting in person. I like bumping into neighbors at the polling place and schmoozing with the cheery volunteers who sign me in and hand me my ballot.

This year, though, fearful that coronavirus will not miraculously vanish by Election Day, I’ve arranged to vote by mail. 

It’s not a complicated process – provided you apply for a mail-in ballot rather than an absentee ballot. Allow me to walk you through.

First: Go to You’ll see a discussion of both mail-in and absentee ballots. Contrary to what I’ve been reading in the national press, they are not the same thing, at least not here in the Keystone State.

The difference: You’re supposed to have one of three reasons for requesting an absentee ballot. They’re for those who are physically unable to get to their polling place because they’re a) overseas, b) out of town or c) ill or disabled. You’ll notice that reluctance to enter a roomful of strangers during a pandemic is not on the list. 

Mail-in ballots, on the other hand, are for anyone who, for whatever reason, would rather vote by mail than in person. 

Here’s what happens if you apply for an absentee ballot: 

First, you’ll be asked if you’re a military or overseas civilian. Say yes and you’ll see a link to another form that wants your overseas address and asks you to swear “under penalty of perjury” that the information is true. So unless you really and truly plan to be in Pago Pago on Nov. 3, you probably don’t want to check the overseas box. 

Say no to the overseas question and you’ll be asked if you’ll be out of town. They’ll take your word for it, apparently, but if you’re not actually going anywhere on Election Day, you’ll still be lying, technically, if you state otherwise, should that kind of thing prick your conscience.

You might then figure that claiming illness or disability is your best option since you want to vote by mail because you’re worried about becoming ill if you stand in line to vote. But then you’ll be asked to fill in your doctor’s name and contact information. 

At that point, you might get nervous. Can the elections office call your doctor to verify that you’re really incapacitated? Actually, no, because of patient privacy protections. 

But why lie? If you apply for a mail-in ballot rather than an absentee, you won’t have to. Just fill in your name, address, contact info and driver’s license number and they’ll send you a ballot, no questions asked.

The deadline is Oct. 27, but I wouldn’t push it. In keeping with the conservative tradition of appointing people to subvert the mission of the agency they have been asked to lead, Trump’s pick to sabotage the U.S. Postal Service has apparently decided that this would be a fine time to cut service in order to cut costs.

If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I might agree. For years, I’ve been wondering if we really need mail delivered to our homes six days a week, especially when most of it goes directly from mailbox to recycling bin. Once-a-week delivery sounds often enough for my purposes, just like once-a-week trash and recycling.

Not everyone conducts most of their correspondence and business online, however. One news story I read mentioned that some customers depend on the U.S. mail for their meds. So drastically tweaking the postal service’s business model is not a simple matter.

But you’ve got to be suspicious about the timing of the cutbacks, especially since new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has contributed more than a million smackeroonies to the Trump Victory Fund. 

It gets better: DeJoy has money invested in UPS, which, as you might be aware, competes with the USPS. 

(If you ask me, conflicts of interest don’t get nearly the attention they deserve. It’s like we’re living in a giant fish market and no longer notice the smell.) 

The threat of postal hanky-panky makes the question of how to exercise the franchise this fall a tough call. Vote in person and you might get the sickness unto death. Vote by mail and it might be your ballot that miraculously disappears, rather than the coronavirus. 

So here’s what you do: Get that mail-in ballot and see how things play out when the students return. If, come mid-September, the local coronavirus situation seems to be under control, you might prefer to vote in person rather than turn your ballot over to an agency that may be in no hurry to deliver it in time to be counted.

If, on the other hand, we become a coronavirus hot spot, which would surprise absolutely no one, you can stay home, vote by mail – the earlier the better -- and hope for the best.

The best, of course, being bye-bye time for the most corrupt/ least competent president in American history.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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