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Question of the Month ~ July 2020


Question: Do states require privacy sleeves, return postage or a witness signature for absentee or vote-by-mail ballots?

by Jon Davis ~ July 2020 ~ Question of the Month »
Entering this year, 29 states — including all Midwestern states but Indiana — already allowed vote-by-mail or “no excuse” absentee voting, meaning a voter can request an absentee ballot without having to meet set criteria, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
But there has never been an election year quite like 2020.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, absentee ballot applications were mailed to all registered voters in advance of primary elections in states such as Indiana (which also temporarily waived its “excuse” requirement), Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Under a recently enacted law in Illinois (SB 1863), every person who has voted over the past two years will be sent an application in advance of this November’s general election. Registered voters in states such as Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin also will be receiving absentee-ballot applications for the general election.
As a result of many states’ primaries being held during the COVID-19 pandemic, there already has been a historic rise in the number of people voting by mail. In Iowa’s June 2 primary election, for example, more than 411,000 people voted absentee, dwarfing the previous mark of 38,000 from the 2016 primary. In North Dakota, all 53 counties opted for voting by mail in that state’s June 9 primary; 159,321 of the 196,000 ballots sent were returned by voters.
Due to this increase, vote-by-mail policies are receiving increased attention and scrutiny. Here are results of a recent CSG Midwest survey about policies in three key areas: the use of secrecy sleeves/envelopes, whether postage is prepaid for voters, and whether voters must provide a witness signature with their returned ballot.

Secrecy sleeve/envelope

Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Ohio provide special “secrecy” sleeves or envelopes for voters to protect ballot secrecy in the mail or when opened for election judges to verify the ballot isn’t spoiled. Under Minnesota law, voters must be provided with an additional envelope or flap that “conceals the signature, identification and other information.” Other states leave the use of secrecy sleeves or envelopes to local election authorities; in Kansas, for example, this policy is left to the counties, says Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Katie Koupal.

Prepaid postage

A return envelope with postage prepaid means voters don’t have to pay just to have their ballot counted, thus making them easier to return. Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin provide postage-paid envelopes for voters to return ballots. Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and South Dakota do not. Illinois and Kansas leave the decision on prepaid postage to local election boards or counties, respectively. But Illinois’ SB 1863, which sets emergency rules for the 2020 general election, requires election authorities to accept “any vote by mail ballot returned with insufficient or no postage.”

Witness signature

While voters in all Midwestern states must sign the return envelope so their signatures can be compared to ones already on file, Minnesota and Wisconsin require a witness signature attesting that the person who filled out the ballot is who he or she claims to be. Minnesota is waiving that requirement for its Aug. 11 primary election.
Four states require witness signatures (Indiana, Michigan and Nebraska) or affidavits (Illinois) if voters need assistance or make only a mark — for example, an “X” — instead of a signature. South Dakota requires a notary’s signature for absentee ballot applications if the voter doesn’t submit a photocopy of his or her ID, but not for the ballots themselves, according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Vote At Home. Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota and Ohio do not require witness signatures.


Question of the Month highlights an inquiry sent to the CSG Midwest Information Help Line.