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ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA - Tens of millions of Americans have already voted ahead of Tuesday's national election, some at early polling sites and others by mailing or dropping off absentee ballots. The surge in absentee voting, seen as prudent by many during a pandemic, comes with pitfalls.
Experts say one million of these ballots may be rejected by election officials in districts spanning the nation. Most states have specific requirements for filling out, verifying and returning an absentee ballot, and all have deadlines by which ballots must be received.
Voter Tom Moore from Woodbridge, Virginia, recently received a letter notifying him that his absentee ballot was incomplete because he hadn't signed it. With just days before the election, he decided not to attempt to correct the absentee ballot, opting to vote in person instead.
Since millions of people are voting absentee for the first time, there are bound to be problems, misunderstandings and uncertainty when filling out the ballots, said Molly McGrath, campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Voting by mail procedures differ among different states," and so the ACLU set up a website for voters that outlines the requirements in each state, McGrath said.
She notes there is a "learning curve" as people complete the absentee ballots, which may also need a signature from witness.
Kat Calvin, executive director of Spread the Vote, a voter education group, said perhaps the biggest problem with absentee voting is that people don't read or follow the directions, especially young and first-time voters, "and we often have to help them figure out what they've supposed to do." She added that having to sign both the ballot and then the required envelope it's put into, "gets a lot of people who forget to do it."
The problem is gaining attention as Nov. 3 draws nearer. Former President Barack Obama recently urged voters "to read the directions carefully to make sure your vote counts."
Patricia Thalman from Fredericksburg, Virginia said she did just that, but complained that her ballot contained conflicting information that was "confusing and ridiculous."
"There is a line on the ballot that said you need a witness and then a paragraph under that's saying you don't," she explained. And even though it turns out Virginia voters do not need a witness signature on their absentee ballots, Thalman and her husband weren't taking any chances and decided to witness each other's ballots anyway.
Ethiopian Nardos Tsegie came to the United States 15 years ago. A resident of Fairfax County, Virginia, she found the balloting process somewhat frustrating, especially after misplacing the required envelope to return the ballot. She said she had to find out where to get a duplicate so she could vote by mail.
Unlike some places in Virginia where ballots have been translated into languages such as Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese, in Alexandria ballots are only in English said Angie Maniglia Turner, director of elections for the city.
That caused some problems for Spanish-speaking resident Fernando Perez who found some of the absentee ballot's wording difficult to understand. A friend helped him so he would not make a mistake, adding: "this election is very important to me."
With Spanish being the second most spoken language in the United States, Lourdes Garcia, community organizer for the Latino advocacy group, CASA, said many other Spanish-speaking people are in the same situation. Lourdes works in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which has a number of immigrants from Mexico and Puerto Rico. Since the ballots in Lancaster are only in English, she provides Spanish translation.
Jasmin Sanchez, a 44-year-old voter from Puerto Rico and a Lancaster resident said, once she understood the process, it was easy. But she still kept asking herself, "'am I doing it right?'" She said the trickiest part was all the required signatures.
Language, cultural barriers
In New York City, the MinKwon Center for Community Action helps low-income Asian-American immigrants, many of whom speak Chinese or Korean.
New York has the second largest number of Asian-American voters in the United States.
Sandra Choi, a civic participation manager at the center said it can be challenging for people "to navigate both language and cultural barriers in the voting process." Besides providing translation services, the center has produced on-line videos in Korean and Chinese to explain how to vote using an absentee ballot.
Anticipating that a substantial number of ballots may be declared invalid, political operatives in many states are working to track and help voters fix rejected vote-by-mail ballots.