Candidates, issues, ballots—voting is on everyone’s minds these days. Here’s a different topic making the rounds: Should a ballot count if someone votes early but dies before Election Day? The question is especially pressing this year as coronavirus concerns have voters voting early or by mail.
Hannah Carson wasted no time returning her absentee ballot for this year’s election. As soon as it arrived at her senior living home, the 90-year-old filled it out and returned it. If something were to happen and she doesn’t make it to Election Day, Carson hopes her ballot will remain valid.
But in North Carolina, a ballot cast by someone who later dies might not be counted—if someone files an official challenge before Election Day.
It’s all a bit confusing.
Carson doesn’t hesitate. “I should think I should count, given all the years I have been here,” she says.
Questions over counting a ballot cast by someone who dies before Election Day are ramping up. That’s partly because the global pandemic has been especially dangerous for older Americans, the group with the highest voting rate.
As it stands now, 17 states bar counting ballots cast by someone who dies before the election. Ten states specifically allow it. And the rest of the country? The law is silent, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Even though a law might require such ballots to be rejected, some could still count—depending on when the person dies and when election officials find out about the death.
After all, it takes time for death records to be updated, and there is a narrow window between when a ballot is cast and counted.
In 2016, Colorado had 15-20 voters who cast ballots by mail and then died before Election Day. All were counted.
In Michigan’s primary this year, 864 ballots got rejected because the voters died before the election—even though they were alive when they filled them out.
Many experts say voter fraud is exceptionally rare.
“There have been umpteen examples of some group claiming a whole bunch of people casting ballots after they died,” says Justin Levitt, an election law expert. “These things don’t pan out.”
But fraud does happen. Levitt says such cases usually involves someone who wants to honor the wishes of a loved one who recently died. Knowingly or not, that person commits a crime by filling out a ballot for the dead person.
Wisconsin is a presidential battleground this year. It is among the states that prohibit a ballot from being counted if the voter dies after submitting it. Every month, the state’s election commission receives records of county death certificates, and those records are run against the statewide voter registration system.
But, says Reid Magney, Wisconsin Election Commission spokesman, “There’s no way to check every absentee ballot to make sure the voter hasn’t died since it was issued.”
Iowa’s election office receives death records and processes them as they are received, including on Election Day.
“Voters have to be eligible electors on Election Day,” says Kevin Hall, spokesman for Iowa’s secretary of state. “Even though Iowa had 29 days of absentee voting, there is still only one Election Day.”
Do you think votes should count if the voter dies between casting a ballot and Election Day? Why or why not?
(A ballot drop box sits ready to accept early ballots in Detroit. AP Photo/Paul Sancya)