Can’t Request an Absentee Ballot Online? This Group Wants to Help

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As state after state has held primary elections in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, interest in voting from home using mail-in absentee ballots has soared.

Yet many voters face a barrier when trying to request their ballots online from the safety of their own homes. Though 41 states allow people to register to vote online, only 18 states allow voters to request absentee ballots online, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which works to expand voting access. (In other states, voters need to send in absentee ballot applications by mail or complete them at election offices, a more cumbersome process.)

There is, however, a bit of a loophole that exists in 13 of the states that don’t offer an online absentee ballot request: If voters can download, print and sign a ballot request form at home, they can either scan it or fax it back to the election office.

Yes, fax it.

That relatively archaic technology gave Debra Cleaver, the founder of VoteAmerica, a voting rights group, an idea: Her organization could establish an online portal for voters in those 13 states, and do the faxing, or scanning and emailing, for them.

“I was like, wait a second, if you could fax forms to some states, then they’re already accepting electronic signatures,” she said. “All voting is weird legal technicalities.”

A quick primer on these specific technicalities: The reason some states require a printed-out request form is because they also require a “wet signature” of pen on paper. A “digital signature,” created when a user moves a cursor on a screen or a finger across a smartphone, is insufficient. But, Ms. Cleaver said, a fax creates an “electronic signature,” a definition made in the 1990s “to establish that fax contracts were binding.”

The project started during the 2016 campaign, while Ms. Cleaver was working at, another voting rights group she founded. After her tenure at the group ended, Ms. Cleaver brought the tool to her new group, VoteAmerica. The system has proved popular, she said, since the coronavirus has heightened interest in voting by mail.

VoteAmerica’s online portal asks voters for all of the information needed to fill out an application. Voters from the 13 states that allow fax or email submissions — including battlegrounds like Georgia and North Carolina — are asked if they want to print out their own ballot and submit it or have VoteAmerica submit it for them.

If a voter chooses to have VoteAmerica send it in, the system sends a text asking for a picture of the person’s signature, which can be signed on any white piece of paper. The voter texts back the picture, and VoteAmerica applies it to the document and emails or faxes the application to the appropriate election office.

Several election experts said they weren’t familiar with the rules about voters’ signatures on absentee ballot requests. But Wendy R. Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said there was no reason for states to be concerned about the signatures on these forms. The actual ballot, she said, “still needs to go to an address of a registered voter, and the voter still needs to fill out her private information and affix her ‘wet signature’ on the ballot envelope when it arrives.”

So while fax machines might be a thing of the past for most people, the old rules around them have allowed VoteAmerica to build an online absentee ballot portal that the group estimates could be used by 73 million people in 13 states.

It is not meant to be a permanent solution.

“We have found this hilariously antiquated solution to a very modern problem,” Ms. Cleaver said. “And to be clear, this is meant to be a temporary workaround: States should let you sign up online. But I don’t anticipate that happening this year. And I certainly don’t anticipate that happening at any sort of reasonable price tag.”

Campaigning for the vice-presidential spot on a ticket is among the more awkward endeavors in modern politics. Candidates must seem ready but not overeager, excited but not desperate. It’s rare to see the veepstakes play out in public with any heavy-handed messaging tactics like ads or web videos.

But with Joseph R. Biden Jr. set to pick a woman who will possibly become one of the Democratic Party’s defining leaders for the next decade, the stakes are a little higher. And one outside group, VoteVets, has decided to start putting in a good word for a favorite candidate: Senator Tammy Duckworth.

The message: This video is not a traditional 30-second television ad but rather a two-minute web video, so the narrator has some time to delve deep into Ms. Duckworth’s military record: She’s a former Army helicopter pilot who lost both her legs when she was shot down in Iraq, and she later became an advocate for veterans in the United States Senate.

Her background, the ad argues, would make her the perfect “attack dog” running mate against President Trump. “I have a message for Cadet Bone Spurs,” Ms. Duckworth is shown saying, referring to the president’s medical exemption from the military during the Vietnam War.

The takeaway: Of course, the selection of a running mate is a choice by the candidate, not a democratic process. And for now, there are no campaign trail encounters where voters impressed by this kind of advertising could tell Mr. Biden what they think of Ms. Duckworth.

But Ms. Duckworth is one of the candidates Mr. Biden is seriously considering, and she would be the first female veteran ever on a presidential ticket. Echoing the ad’s argument, she says her military background allows her to “push back against Trump in a way that others can’t.”

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