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As Americans worry about mailed ballots, most states now offer a way to track them

Many states are experiencing an unparalleled surge in mailed ballots thanks to states allowing absentee votes because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Illustration of mail carrier delivering a ballot. The background is map with checkmarks to indicate pickup at homes and the post office.
Once a rarity, ballot tracking is now available in most states.Nicholas Little / for NBC News

Forty-six states have quietly adopted a free way for every voter to track their ballot this year, a potential rebuttal to fears that voting by mail is inherently risky.

Ballot-tracking systems, a first for most states this presidential election, are a potential way to combat Americans' growing distrust in election results in general and the accuracy of voting by mail in particular.

For most states, it's a simple online lookup that shows simple fields for each voter's ballot, like whether it's been sent or received, according to a tally from the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit that advocates allowing Americans to vote without having to visit a polling site.

Five states, plus several hundred counties, go further. They offer a service that marks every voter's envelope with a unique barcode like a shipped package and lets them receive updates via text message or email every step of the way.

That's a sharp increase from 2016, when only a handful of states allowed ballot tracking of any sort.

"With all the misinformation on mail ballots, we've got to deal with the inaccurate information out there," said Amber McReynolds, the National Vote at Home Institute's CEO and a former director of elections for Denver, which pioneered such a system.

"Not only does it notify that your ballot's been accepted, it notifies you if your ballot has a problem," she said. "That instant notification is helpful, and it streamlines the administrative process."

Many states are experiencing an unparalleled surge in mailed ballots, thanks in large part to the trend of states allowing voters to vote absentee because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But that surge has been accompanied by increased concerns about whether voting by mail is safe and accurate. Fewer than half of American voters are confident the 2020 vote count will be accurate, an August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found — a sharp drop from 2016 — and a majority say that mailed votes won't be counted accurately.

Top government officials have contributed to that uncertainty. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican donor who started in June, quickly implemented cost-cutting moves to the U.S. Postal Service, then reversed them in August amid lawsuits that alleged they could result in unreliable ballot delivery. And President Donald Trump has repeatedly instructed followers in North Carolina and elsewhere to vote twice — both by mail and in person — an illegal act that can potentially bring criminal charges.

Karen Brinson Bell, the top election official in North Carolina, said she was grateful her state had already instituted a ballot tracking program when Trump made those comments.

"We didn't have a crystal ball that these things would be said or be called into question. When a voter has doubts, we feel fortunate these things were already put into place," she said. "For the first time in history, they can see their absentee mail ballot from the start to finish."

North Carolina is one of four states that use a program called BallotTrax statewide, which lets eligible voters sign up online to receive emails, texts or voicemails telling them when their ballot reaches one of four stages: printed, mailed, received and counted. Some BallotTrax states, like Colorado, automatically register voters who have registered their email addresses with the secretary of state's office.

In Michigan, which Trump previously falsely claimed was sending ballots to voters who didn't request them and threatened to withhold federal funding before encouraging voters to vote by mail there, voters can check the status of their ballot against the state's database.

Virginia, as well as a number of scattered counties, use a similar program called Ballot Scout that gives voters the option to get updates by text or email.

Even as Election Day looms, McReynolds said that she's talked to states that are still considering adding such a system, which she says is also a smart investment.

"The reason we designed it in Denver is when we started to see a big increase in people requesting their ballots, the main calls into our office were, 'Did you get my ballot?' and 'When is it coming?'" she said.

"I'd rather not have 50 people staffing our phone bank asking that question."