Pam Fessler | WGLT

Pam Fessler

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Election workers around the country are preparing for what could be one of the most chaotic elections in history. There's not only a pandemic, but dozens of ongoing legal fights over voting rules. That's left a lot of things up in the air only weeks before Election Day.

In election offices such as the one in Lehigh County, Pa., workers are trying to deal with the uncertainty.

The 2020 general election has begun with North Carolina becoming the first state to start mailing out absentee ballots on Friday, two months before Election Day.

Other states will begin doing the same over the next few weeks in an election that's expected to break all records in the number of ballots cast early and by mail. Minnesota will be the first state to offer early in-person voting starting Sept. 18, with many states following not long afterward.

An extraordinarily high number of ballots — more than 550,000 — have been rejected in this year's presidential primaries, according to a new analysis by NPR.

That's far more than the 318,728 ballots rejected in the 2016 general election and has raised alarms about what might happen in November when tens of millions of more voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail, many for the first time.

Cuts to the U.S. Postal Service have led to widespread concerns about mail-in ballots arriving on time in November. Tens of thousands of ballots have already been rejected this year because they were received after the deadline.

Now, a number of states are extending those deadlines, so ballots only need to be postmarked by Election Day, instead of received by Election Day, which is currently the law in most places.

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Election officials are seeking clarification from the Postal Service about how recent cutbacks will affect what's expected to be an avalanche of mail-in voting in the upcoming election. Changes in postal operations have already led to mail delays across the country, raising alarms about what will happen in November.

Many voters are worried about casting their ballots in person this November because of the pandemic. They're also concerned that their mail-in ballots could be misplaced or delayed.

One voting option that's gaining popularity — and also attracting controversy — is the use of drop boxes, where voters can deposit their absentee ballots to be collected later by election officials.

Updated at 11:56 a.m. ET

With about 100 days left before the general election, officials are simultaneously trying to prepare for two very different types of voting, while facing two unprecedented threats to safety and security. It's a juggling act that has voters, political parties and officials anxious about how smoothly November's voting will go.

"Doubt is our enemy," U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, said at a Senate hearing Wednesday on what Congress can do to ensure public confidence in this year's election results.

Mail-in voting, which tens of millions of Americans are expected to use this November, is fraught with potential problems. Hundreds of thousands of ballots go uncounted each year because people make mistakes, such as forgetting to sign the form or sending it in too late.

A prominent Republican has tough words for President Trump's campaign against the expansion of mail-in voting and says the president's criticism could undermine his own party's efforts to retain control of the Senate.

"It's got to be pretty discouraging, I would think, to incumbent members of the Senate, who probably have very aggressive absentee ballot programs ... to have the president telling your supporters: 'Go to polls. Don't use absentee,' " former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge told NPR.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says it will make $30 million in grants available to nonprofit groups in five Southern states to help register and mobilize voters of color.

The campaign will go through this year's election, as well as the 2022 midterm elections.

"The United States has a long history of denying voting rights to its citizens, especially black and brown people, returning citizens and young people," said SPLC president Margaret Huang.

Wisconsin voters had to wait in long lines to cast their ballots. Absentee ballots went missing in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. And last week, voters in Georgia and Nevada were frustrated by long lines and widespread confusion.

The day after eight states and the District of Columbia held primaries — amid both a pandemic and civil unrest — proponents of mail-in voting said there were lessons to be learned for November, when millions more voters are expected to use absentee ballots.

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With the widespread expansion of vote-by-mail this year in response to the pandemic, both major political parties and their allies are waging an intense legal battle to shape the rules around absentee and mail-in voting.

The details matter a lot and could affect the outcome in November.

No door-to-door canvassing. Public gatherings are canceled. Motor vehicle offices are closed. Naturalization ceremonies are on hiatus.

Almost every place where Americans usually register to vote has been out of reach since March and it's led to a big drop in new registrations right before a presidential election that was expected to see record turnout.

Republican state officials who want to expand absentee and mail-in voting during the pandemic have found themselves in an uncomfortable position due to their party's rhetoric.

President Trump has claimed repeatedly, without providing evidence, that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud and bad for the GOP. He and other Republicans have charged that Democrats might use it to "steal" the election.

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More Americans than ever before are expected to vote by mail this year because of concerns about the coronavirus. One challenge facing election officials now: how to print and mail the millions of ballots voters are expected to request in the coming months.

The legal fight over how Americans will vote this year is rapidly turning into a war.

That's according to conservative "election integrity" advocates who accuse Democrats of using the current pandemic to push through changes that these groups say will undermine U.S. elections.

Election-year legal battles over voting procedures are nothing new. But their scope and intensity are growing this year amid deep partisan polarization and the logistical challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. The legal fights are expected to heat up in the coming weeks.

Who does and doesn't get to vote in November could rest on how states, political parties and the federal government respond to the coronavirus threat to U.S. elections.

Election offices around the country already were having trouble retaining staff before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. They're now dealing with more serious personnel strains even as the workload becomes increasingly intense.

Social service providers that rely on volunteers are having to scale back operations, just as more Americans are coming to them for help.

Julio Alonso, executive director and CEO of the Hoosier Hills Food Bank in Bloomington, Ind., says students from nearby Indiana University usually help pack and distribute food, but they've been sent home because of the pandemic.

"In addition to those student groups, a lot of businesses come on a regular basis and volunteer for us as groups, and that has pretty much gone out the window," Alonso said.

There's plenty in the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress to help low-income Americans, including billions of dollars in housing assistance, foreclosure and eviction relief, expanded unemployment benefits, and one-time cash payments.

But advocates for the poor say it's only a first step and that those at the lower end of the economic scale will need much more help in the months ahead.

The Senate coronavirus relief bill now under consideration would give states $400 million to protect upcoming elections against the pandemic threat. The money, far less than the $4 billion some Democrats had wanted, would allow states to expand mail-in and early voting, as well as online voter registration. The money could also be used to help secure in-person voting sites.

The election-year coronavirus pandemic has pushed back elections in more than a dozen states, leading to growing interest in expanding voting by mail this year in order to keep poll workers and voters safe.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Updated at 5:05 p.m. ET

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have canceled their respective rallies tonight in Cleveland, Ohio, with the campaigns citing public health concerns amid the coronavirus outbreak.

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