Where your vote counts — and where it doesn’t — when you die

Only eight states guarantee a voter’s absentee ballot will be counted if they die before Election Day.
A woman drops a ballot into a drop box while casting her vote during Maryland’s primary election, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Every year, a new version of the same sad but inevitable story crosses our radar: Someone feels so strongly about an election that they manage to cast an absentee ballot just before they pass away.

But in only eight states is that person’s absentee ballot guaranteed to count. State laws in Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia explicitly allow an absentee ballot cast by a voter who dies before an Election Day to be included in the tally, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Connecticut, state law requires an absentee ballot be counted only if the deceased is a member of the armed services.

If the unfortunate voter is a resident of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota or Wisconsin, they don’t get the same privilege. Those states have statutes explicitly prohibiting counting the absentee ballots of anyone who dies before Election Day.

It’s also prohibited in Kentucky and Mississippi but through attorney general opinions, not state law.

In Missouri, it’s a little more complicated: A ballot cast by a dead voter must be rejected only if there is sufficient evidence shown to election administrators that the voter died before polls opened on Election Day itself, and that the voter’s ballot is still sealed in the envelope.

Cleaning up voter rolls is a year-round occupation for election administrators. States are required by federal law, the National Voter Registration Act, to remove deceased individuals from the roster of eligible voters.

The Missouri rule is illustrative of the challenges elections administrators face in the extremely rare case that someone is able to cast a ballot just before they pass on. Once an absentee ballot has been verified and removed from its envelope to be counted — a process that happens before Election Day in many states — the ballot cannot be retraced to a specific voter, a practice meant to ensure that voters’ preferences are kept secret.

Federal and state elections officials often have to combat rumors of rampant voting by the deceased. In a fact sheet, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency — a branch of the Department of Homeland Security — lists votes by the deceased among its roster of commonly spread misinformation.

“Removal of deceased individuals is based on death records shared by state vital statistics agencies and the Social Security Administration,” the agency says. “While there can be lag time between a person’s death and their removal from the voter registration list, which can lead to some official election mail, including mail-in ballots being delivered to addresses of deceased individuals, death records provide a strong audit trail to identify any attempts to cast ballots on behalf of deceased individuals.”