Two straight weeks of national political conventions – with the usual avalanche of speeches, videos and campaign ads – may have some Washington voters on edge.
Some are so worried about their ability to vote in the upcoming election that they are making frantic calls to their local and state elections offices.
Blame the Democrats for urging folks to sign up early for absentee ballots and vote them as soon as possible. Blame the Republicans for suggesting that casting a ballot by mail is more prone to fraud than the voter roles in a Chicago cemetery.
“It may be stretching our resources, but at least it’s getting voters’ attention,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said. “They’re reaching out. They’re asking questions.”
Secretary of State Kim Wyman said her office is getting calls from people afraid they won’t get their ballots because of problems with the Postal Service. “We have to talk them off the ledge, they’re very emotional about it,” she said.
If anything about casting a ballot is giving you sleepless nights, congratulate yourself for being a conscientious voter. And take a deep breath because there may be some things about Washington’s election system you don’t quite understand. Here’s some answers to frequently asked questions coming in to elections office.
How do I get an absentee ballot for the November election?
You probably do not need an absentee ballot if you live in Washington. It’s a vote-by-mail state, which is pretty much like it sounds. The counties mail ballots to every registered voter about three weeks before every election. Voters mark them and mail them back.
So there are absolutely no absentee ballots in Washington?
There is something known as a special absentee ballot for people who have a specific reason why they will not physically be able to vote on election day. They used to be called “submarine absentees,” Dalton said, because the people who needed them were so completely out of touch they couldn’t vote close to the election. If you aren’t going to be submerged in a Trident submarine, on the Space Station, or in a planned medically induced coma, you probably don’t need one of those and a standard mail-in ballot will be just fine.
How soon will I be able to vote?
As soon as you receive your ballot, which should be in mid-October. County elections offices mail out ballots starting October 16. Large counties have so many ballots that they sometimes spread out the mailing over two days to keep from overwhelming the U.S. Postal Service. In Spokane and most Eastern Washington counties, the ballots arrive in your mailbox in three or four days.
But I’ve seen commercials with people urging me to vote right away. Why can’t I vote now?
For one thing, Washington’s general election ballot isn’t set yet. There are three minor party candidates for president who are still trying to qualify for the ballot. But the main reason is the timing for mailing out ballots is set by law, and the elections offices work backward from those deadlines to have some 4.5 million ballots and the needed envelopes printed.
What about the postal delays I’ve been hearing about?
That initial mailing of ballots goes out at a bulk rate, which under postal regulations can take up to 10 days, so even if it takes that long you would still have a week before the election. But Dalton said that’s no different from past years, and in the vast majority of cases, ballots either arrive within four days, or not at all.
So 10 days go by and I don’t have a ballot, am I out of luck?
No. You can call the county Elections Office and request another ballot, which will be sent out with First Class postage, with a much faster delivery schedule. But before you request a new ballot, you might want to check to see whether the original was tossed into a stack of junk mail.
What if I like to vote on Election Day or the day before and didn’t notice my ballot was missing until then?
Your best option would be to go to the Elections Office before 8 p.m. and request a ballot, which will be issued to you, and you can vote it then.
Still a little worried about not getting my ballot on time. Anything I can do?
You can make sure the Elections Office has your correct address by going to voter.votewa.gov at any time and plugging in the requested information. If the address is wrong, you can correct it.
What if the address is right but someone steals my ballot out of my box?
That’s rare but if it happened, they would also have to be able to recreate your signature, which is checked by the Elections Office when it arrives. If that signature is rejected, you’d be notified and then request replacement.
What about getting my ballot back in time?
The return envelopes are postage paid, First Class. They can be mailed back as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3, or deposited in a drop box by 8 p.m that day. If you wait until the last minute to mail them, make sure they are going to be postmarked that day. If you wait that long, it might be better to put them in a drop box.
How do I know if my ballot gets to the Elections Office?
You can track it online, also at voter.votewa.gov . That site will tell you when your ballot has been mailed out, when it has been received back, when your signature has been checked and either verified or questioned, and when it has been sent to tabulation.
But not when it has been counted?
Once the ballot has been sent to tabulation, the identifying information on the outer envelope is gone, so it can’t be individually tracked. That way no one knows how you voted, only that you did vote.
Will my ballot be rejected if it isn’t received by Nov. 3?
No. That’s true in some states, but not Washington. As long as it is postmarked by Nov. 3, it will be processed and counted for up to three weeks after the election.
So we might not know the election results for three weeks?
In an extremely close race, yes, but that’s no different than when Washington voted at poll sites and the state allowed time for the old type of absentee ballots to come in. The winners and losers in most races will be clear either the night of Nov. 3 or by the end of that week.
Editor’s note: The web address for Washington’s online voter services was incorrect in an earlier version of this column.