If you vote by mail, but die before Election Day, does your vote count? It depends on where you lived.
Oregon counts ballots no matter what happens to the voter. So does Florida. But in South Dakota, if you die before the election, so does your vote.
Increasingly popular mail-in ballots mean voters can now choose candidates up to 60 days before an election, raising new questions about an age-old phenomenon normally associated with chicanery in places like Chicago: What should be done with the ballots of the recently dead?
Laws in at least a dozen states are evenly split between tallying and dumping the votes. No one keeps records on how often such deaths occur.
Yet in this year’s contentious campaign, the right of every American to a counted ballot has become a rallying cry — even if the voter dies before the tallying starts.
Take the case of Florence Steen, an ailing 88-year-old grandmother born before women had the right to vote. One of her last wishes was to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton. She wanted to be part of history, said her daughter Kathy Krause.
Steen was confined to a hospice bed in Rapid City, S.D., when she was brought an absentee ballot weeks before the June 3 primary. She studied it a long time, then marked her choice with such determination her daughter feared she would poke through the paper.
Steen died on Mother’s Day. With a heavy heart, her daughter took the ballot and dropped it in a mailbox. “In my mind, her vote counted,” Krause said. “My mother believed she had voted for a woman to be president.”
But the women down at the county courthouse told Krause the ballot had to be tossed because state law declared a voter must be alive on Election Day.
So Krause passed that word to the Clinton campaign. And Clinton drew great applause when she told the story in her concession speech four days after the South Dakota primary.
“It’s just a goofy law, and it needs to be changed,” said Krause, who plans to lobby state legislators to reverse that statute just as soon as her grief eases.
“What about the soldiers in Iraq? What if they vote and they’re killed in action, God forbid? Should we take away their vote because they died for their country?”
There are no military standards governing voting by soldiers. Rather, their mailed-in ballots are counted at the individual election districts where they are registered to vote. But like civilian votes, no one keeps track of whether the ballots of soldiers are thrown out because they died after casting them.
“No one can tell you that,” said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, head of the Overseas Voting Foundation in Munich. “Every single election jurisdiction can do it the way it wants. And there are more than 7,000 of them.”
Thirty-one states allow some form of early voting.
Ballots cast by the dead are usually the focus of fraud allegations, as happened in Washington’s extremely tight 2004 gubernatorial race, decided by a margin of 129 votes out of 3 million cast. More than a dozen ballots were linked to dead people.
But some advocates say legitimate, mail-in votes from people who die before Election Day should be counted, particularly in rural elections, where races can hang on a handful of votes.
“In Montana, there have been several legislative seats decided by one, two, three votes,” said Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization that recently looked at 12 mostly Western states and found that half have no rules governing ballots of the deceased.
Those remaining states — Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota and Utah — demand that such ballots be rejected, leaving Montana and Oregon as the only states that count them.
South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson said he doesn’t understand why a dead person’s vote should be counted.
“In my mind, it’s clear,” Nelson said. “You have to be a qualified voter on Election Day. I don’t know how someone can say you’re a qualified voter if you’re deceased.”
Pam Smith, director of the advocacy group Verified Voting, disagrees: “By definition, the day you cast a ballot is Election Day. That’s it.”