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Say that for some reason someone was was unable to go to a polling place or fill out an absentee ballot (perhaps they suffered a debilitating injury and are unable to focus for a sustained period of time). Would they be able to authorize someone to vote on their behalf, either by going in person at a poll or by being the one to fill out an absentee ballot?

My thought is that the person unable to vote would either say:

  • I authorize you to fill out a ballot voting for candidate X
  • I am unable to research the candidates, but you know my values and I authorize you to fill out a ballot voting for whichever candidate best aligns with them

If the answer varies by state, let's ask for California since it's the most populous US state.

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Authorizing someone else to vote on your behalf (either at your direction or at their own discretion is called Proxy Voting.

It is extremely common in elections within corporations and other organisations; it is extremely rare in governmental elections.

Each state of the US determines the rules governing voting so there is no blanket answer. For California the answer is no - from Where and How to Vote the voter must cast their own ballot, either in person or by mail.

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    Proxy voting may be extremely rare in the US, but British citizens living overseas are encouraged to appoint a proxy vote (because a postal vote may not get back in time). – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 29 '18 at 16:07
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Not sure about California, but here in Colorado, where all voting is by mail, as far as I know there is no problem with having someone fill out your ballot according to your instructions. You still have to sign the ballot before sending it in, to certify that it is filled out according to your wishes. Or if you are unable to sign your name, you can also make a mark (X) and have a witness sign to verify that the mark was made by you.

I don't know what happens if someone is so severely disabled that they are physically unable to make any kind of mark, yet are still of sound mind and somehow able to clearly communicate how they wish to vote. It seems like this would be a rather rare set of circumstances. For instance, if you're able to speak, you would probably be able to make a mark by holding a pen in your mouth.

  • My thought was that a person my want to authorize someone to vote on their behalf, either by saying "I authorize you to fill out a ballot voting for candidate X" or saying "I am unable to research them, but you know my values and I authorize you to vote for whichever candidate best aligns with them." I've clarified the question. – Thunderforge Oct 28 '18 at 21:55
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    @Thunderforge: I think the first case is covered by what I mentioned above, as long as the voter signs the ballot afterwards. The second is sort of a gray area. There is a Colorado law against "unduly influencing" a vote and I suppose one could argue that this would apply when the proxy is making all the decisions about how to vote. – Nate Eldredge Oct 28 '18 at 22:04
  • @NateEldredge An ability to make a mark is not a condition that may be legally imposed in the U.S. upon someone who is otherwise eligible to vote and is able to clearly communicate how they wish to vote under federal law (see my answer). – ohwilleke Oct 30 '18 at 2:59
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My thought is that the person unable to vote would either say:

  • I authorize you to fill out a ballot voting for candidate X

  • I am unable to research the candidates, but you know my values and I authorize you to fill out a ballot voting for whichever candidate best aligns with them

The former is permissible, the latter is an impermissible proxy.

The choice of who and what you vote for is non-delegable in every U.S. state.1 Proxy voting2 has been prohibited in governmental elections in the U.S. since not long after the U.S. Civil War, although it persisted longer (until the early 1900s) in the internal elections of political parties.

In the case of a severely disabled person, that person may obtain assistance at the polls from an election official, and elsewhere, from someone else of the voter's choice, with an absentee ballot, to actually mark the ballot to the disabled person's precise direction.

Now, in theory, the precise direction could be succinct, if the voter's intentions are clear and simple.

For example, the voter might direct someone to "vote a straight party-line ballot for partisan candidates for the GOP, vote against retaining each judge facing a retention election, vote in favor of all referred ballot issues, and vote against all citizen initiatives."

Assistance in marking a ballot is permitted even in states where absolute secrecy in ballot completion (which cannot be waived even by the voter) is mandated by law and disclosure of a marked ballot to third-parties is otherwise prohibited by law. Indeed, this is required by the Americans With Disabilities Act and related laws and case law (some general principles are laid out here). As the U.S. Department of Justice explains:

To ensure that voters with disabilities can fully participate in the election process, officials must provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services at each stage of the process, from registering to vote to casting a ballot. Only if providing an aid or service would result in a fundamental alteration or undue financial and administrative burdens is a jurisdiction not required to provide the aid or service. However, the jurisdiction still has an obligation to provide, if possible, another aid or service that results in effective communication. In determining the type of auxiliary aid and service to be provided, officials must give primary consideration to the request of the voter.

Examples of auxiliary aids and services for people who are blind or have low vision include a qualified reader (a person who is able to read effectively, accurately, and impartially using necessary specialized vocabulary); information in large print or Braille; accessible electronic information and information technology; and audio recording of printed information.

Examples of auxiliary aids and services for people who are deaf or have hearing loss include sign language interpreters, Video Remote Interpreting, captioning, and written notes. For additional information about auxiliary aids and services, see ADA Requirements: Effective Communication at http://www.ada.gov/effective-comm.htm.

For example, suppose that a jurisdiction is conducting an election for mayor and city council members using a paper ballot system. A blind voter requests an accessible ballot. A Braille ballot would have to be counted separately and would be readily identifiable, and thus would not constitute a secret ballot. Other aids and services would better afford voters who are blind the opportunity to vote privately and independently and to cast a secret ballot, just like other voters. These may include ballot overlays or templates, electronic information and information technology that is accessible (either independently or through assistive technology such as screen readers), or recorded text or telephone voting systems.

But, the only relief available to someone "unable to focus for a sustained period of time", is to get an absentee or mail-in ballot and to do a little bit at a time.

The law of what is permissible in terms of someone strongly suggesting someone vote a particular way, particularly if they can see how someone is actually voting, is less uniform.

The U.S. Tax Code prohibits 501(c)(3) exempt organizations from endorsing candidates. Many states have laws prohibiting campaigning by employers directed at workers. Campaigning in government workplaces is likewise banned in many places and circumstances.

1 There is a very narrow exception allowing voting by proxy in some states when one is voting because one is a property owner, who may or may not be required to be natural person depending upon the state, in a special district election. This can happen in special districts where there are no residents, or where state law otherwise allows property owners to impose taxes upon themselves collectively in a special district to provide services. For example, property owners may vote by proxy in a water and sewer district bond levy election in an industrial park in many states.

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