Vote by mail: Is it safe, fair, and ready for November?

Why We Wrote This

Voting is a fundamental right of any democracy. But how best to protect that right during a pandemic has become a matter of hot debate in the U.S.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP
A worker processes mail-in ballots for Florida's primary elections at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando, Florida, March 17, 2020.

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Amid concerns that the pandemic will prevent equal access to voting, many states are moving to expand opportunities to vote by mail. Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington – already vote entirely by mail, which means all registered voters are automatically sent a ballot.

That is distinct from absentee voting, which requires voters to apply for an absentee ballot before being sent one. All states allow absentee voting, though about a third usually require a reason.

Key areas of partisan disagreement: requesting ballots online, free return postage, witness signature requirements, and perhaps most important, how each state will establish standards governing disqualification of ballots. Two dozen legal challenges have already been launched.

Educating voters, scaling up equipment, and refining rules and procedures in a matter of months is a tall order; the five vote-by-mail states gave themselves a year. Rushing it could lead to greater inaccuracies; already, tens of thousands of absentee ballots have been disqualified in previous elections.

With six key swing states allowing “no excuse” absentee voting this November, even relatively minor numbers of disqualified ballots could tip a tight race, and potentially determine who will become the next president.

Many states have expanded mail-in voting ahead of the 2020 election in order to ensure fair access for all amid the ongoing pandemic. This has led to concerns that the expected surge in people voting by mail, could lead to delays and inaccuracies that would undermine faith in the election results.

Is mail-in voting the same as absentee voting?

No. Absentee voters must request a ballot to be mailed to them. Mail-in voting states send every registered voter a ballot automatically.

Currently, all states allow absentee voting. However, a third require voters to provide a reason for why they cannot vote in person. Most of those states have eased their rules, including by making COVID-19 concerns a valid reason for requesting an absentee ballot.

Prior to the pandemic, five states voted entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. Three additional states – California, Nebraska, and North Dakota – allow counties to institute voting by mail if they so choose. And nine more states allow certain elections, such as special elections or nonpartisan issue elections, to be done entirely by mail.

This year, with the pandemic exacerbating concerns about lack of safe access to polling places, at least half a dozen states are mailing every registered voter an absentee ballot application in upcoming primaries. Two of those ­– Connecticut and Michigan – are doing so for the November general election as well. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has gone a step further, saying he would automatically send the state’s more than 20 million voters absentee ballots without an application process.

What are the challenges to expanding mail-in voting?

The first challenge is the rushed time frame. Most of the current vote-by-mail (VBM) states gave themselves a year between enacting the legislation and conducting their first elections by mail. One reason for that is the need to bring voter lists up to date. Some also establish a database of voter signatures used to certify the authenticity of absentee voting.

Second is the infrastructure required. A surge in mailed ballots would require much more powerful scanning machines at centralized locations, rather than smaller ones in each precinct. The $400 million that Congress allocated this spring to help states safely run elections amid the pandemic is not likely to cover such a major equipment overhaul.

Another issue is voter education campaigns to ensure that citizens are clear on the revised rules, including when ballots need to arrive in order to be counted. Such campaigns can present substantial up-front costs. (However, in the long run VBM can cut costs; Colorado saved 40% on election administration costs after switching to the VBM model.)

In addition, there are concerns about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, which was already in deep financial trouble before the pandemic led to a double-digit drop in mail volume.

While both Republican- and Democrat-led states are making it easier to cast a ballot by mail, key areas of partisan disagreement are: requesting a ballot online, free postage, witness signature requirements, and perhaps most important, how each state will establish standards governing disqualification of ballots. Two dozen legal challenges have already been launched.

What are the concerns?

Democrats are concerned that without increasing vote-by-mail options, certain groups will not be able to cast ballots without risking their health, therefore undermining a pillar of U.S. democracy. They have proposed billions of dollars in federal funding for states that institute uniform practices, including adopting VBM systems. Republicans argue that such a move trespasses states’ rights under the Constitution, and raises the possibility of substantial inaccuracies.

Among the concerns are ballot design flaws that mislead voters, voter confusion over the deadline for submitting ballots, delays in tallying votes, and signature mismatches that result in disqualification of ballots. In previous years, substantial numbers of absentee ballots have been disqualified – sometimes many more than the margin of victory. For example, when Al Franken won the 2008 Minnesota Senate race by 312 votes, giving Democrats the majority they needed to pass Obamacare, about 12,000 absentee ballots were thrown out. In some elections, such as Florida in 2016, minorities and young people have seen their ballots disqualified at far higher rates.

While the number of known cases of voter fraud is extremely low – one study put it at less than 0.00000013% of ballots cast in federal elections – absentee voting is more susceptible to fraud than other forms. A bipartisan commission on federal election reform co-chaired by former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter concluded that absentee voting cases are “especially difficult to prosecute, since the misuse of a voter’s ballot or the pressure on voters occurs away from the polling place or any other outside scrutiny.”

A little-noticed change to California law in 2016 paved the way for anyone – including paid campaign workers – to collect absentee ballots on behalf of voters, raising concerns about coercion not only from friends or family members, but campaigns themselves. In the 2018 midterms, Republicans were caught off-guard by this practice, which they dubbed “ballot harvesting,” as tight races tipped against them after absentee voters were counted.

Meanwhile, a GOP operative from North Carolina was charged with several counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly filling in ballots for absentee voters. The election was ordered thrown out and redone.

With “no excuse” absentee voting in the six key swing states likely to determine the winner in November’s presidential election – Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – even relatively minor numbers of disqualified ballots or other irregularities could tip a tight race, and potentially determine who will become the next president.

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