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Analysis

To Protect Democracy, Expand Vote by Mail

Widespread adoption is key to a safe, secure election. But if states fail to plan — and Congress fails to provide the necessary resources — the result will be chaos.

Last Updated: June 30, 2020
Published: June 30, 2020

This article was origin­ally published by News­week.

This year’s primary elec­tions, to-date, have served as both a high-stakes test of voting during the coronavirus pandemic and a preview of chal­lenges that Amer­ic­ans may face in Novem­ber. The results were unset­tling: resource-strapped elec­tion offi­cials struggled to handle a surge in demand for absentee and mail ballots, and voter­s—d­is­pro­por­tion­ately Black and Latino voters, accord­ing to reports—­faced hours-long waits at polling places.

If this was a dry run for Novem­ber’s elec­tion, it was a very bumpy ride. It made clear that states still have a lot of work to do to prepare for a general elec­tion in which illness and social distan­cing proto­cols will create chal­lenges at polling places—and in which record numbers of voters will likely try to cast absentee and mail ballots. It also should put to rest any disputes over whether states should expand absentee or mail voting during the pandemic. They must do so.

First, more and more voters are choos­ing to vote by mail this year, whether or not states change their voting rules. In 35 states and the District of Columbia, voters already had the option to vote absentee without an excuse. And in most of the remain­ing states, state offi­cials have determ­ined that the risk of infec­tion provides a suffi­cient excuse to vote absentee, at least for the primar­ies.

The June primar­ies were the latest indic­at­ors that voters are indeed flock­ing to absentee and voting by mail in record numbers. In Geor­gia, 1.1 million absentee ballots have been returned so far, up from 220,000 in the 2018 general elec­tion. In Pennsylvania, roughly 1.9 million voters reques­ted mail ballot­s—18 times the number in 2016. In NebraskaNevadaOhio and Rhode Island, more than 80 percent of the ballots cast were by mail. Health experts predict that the coronavirus will linger well into the fall, so there’s every reason to expect a similar surge in requests for mail ballots ahead of the Novem­ber elec­tion.

Voters are choos­ing mail ballots for the obvi­ous reason that they do not want to risk infec­tion by congreg­at­ing at polling places. It is for this reason that polls consist­ently find that super­ma­jor­it­ies of Amer­ic­ans support having a mail voting option this year. And it is for this reason that states have an oblig­a­tion to ensure that every voter who wants to vote by mail ballot can do so. No one should have to choose between her health and her right to vote.

And yet, even though the 14 states that voted on June 2 and June 9, along with the District of Columbia, expan­ded or promoted absentee and mail-in voting, most were unpre­pared to meet the spike in demand. In just one county in Pennsylvania, 6,000 voters were not mailed their ballots until the day before the elec­tion, giving them little time to get their ballots post­marked before the voting dead­line. Thou­sands of voters in Geor­gia, Louisi­ana, South Caro­lina, Rhode Island, West Virginia and D.C. repor­ted request­ing but not receiv­ing absentee ballots in time to vote. Soft­ware issues in counties across Geor­gia may have left thou­sands of votes uncoun­ted.

One consequence of fail­ing to provide a mail-in ballot to every­one was uncon­scion­ably long lines at the polls in places like Atlanta, where votes waited from three to seven hours to vote—as well as in Indi­ana­polis, Milwau­kee, Phil­adelphia, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., among others. Some of this is due to the recent dramatic consol­id­a­tion and clos­ures of polling places. The fail­ures to process absentee ballot requests on time, espe­cially in some counties, were a major factor, too.

Disturb­ingly, these fail­ures have dispro­por­tion­ately harmed voters of color. Black and Latino voters in Geor­gia, for example, had far fewer absentee ballot requests processed than did white voters. In state after state, voters of color waited in longer lines at the poll­s—­com­pound­ing the signi­fic­ant racial dispar­it­ies in wait times we saw in 2018. With millions protest­ing against racial injustice and demand­ing change, we need to ensure that those who are making their voices heard in the streets are also heard at the ballot box.

Put it all together and the conclu­sion is clear. States need to do everything they can to facil­it­ate a massive increase in absentee and mail-in voting in Novem­ber, and they also need ample and safe in-person voting oppor­tun­it­ies to address the inev­it­able gaps.

These efforts won’t be helped, of course, by Pres­id­ent Donald Trump’s fanat­ical crusade against voting by mail, which he claims is “horrible,” “corrupt” and a guar­antor of “[t]remend­ous poten­tial voter fraud.” There is simply no evid­ence for these claims.

(Nor is it true, as the pres­id­ent has claimed, that absentee and mail ballot­ing favor Demo­crats. This may explain why Repub­lican lead­ers in some swing states, concerned that the pres­id­ent’s rhet­oric could end up depress­ing GOP turnout in Novem­ber, are reportedly telling their voters to ignore him on this subject.)

If there were evid­ence that mail voting is rife with fraud, it would­n’t be hard to find; much of the coun­try already votes by mail. (Indeed, so does Pres­id­ent Trump.) Every state has long provided mail ballots to a portion of its voters, includ­ing milit­ary and over­seas voters. And in five states—­Col­or­ado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Wash­ing­ton—it has been the primary method of voting. In the last three federal elec­tions, one in four voters cast their ballots by mail, includ­ing more than 31 million Amer­ic­ans in 2018.

And still, fraud rates remain infin­ites­im­ally small. None of the five states that hold their elec­tions primar­ily by mail has had any voter fraud scan­dals since making the change. Oregon, for example, has sent out more than 100 million mail-in ballots since 2000, and docu­mented only about a dozen cases of proven fraud. That’s 0.00001 percent of all votes cast. (Correc­tion below)

States have a number of power­ful tools to ensure the secur­ity of mail ballot­s—tools that have been honed over time and enhanced by new tech­no­lo­gies, includ­ing the mail ballot secrecy envel­ope, veri­fic­a­tion of signa­tures and personal inform­a­tion, bar codessecure drop-off loca­tions and drop boxes and post-elec­tion audits. Along with harsh penal­ties for anyone who attempts to commit fraud (up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines for each act of fraud under federal law alone), these tools provide elec­tion offi­cials from both sides of the aisle confid­ence in the integ­rity of their systems.

Let’s be clear: Millions of voters will cast absentee and mail ballots in the 2020 elec­tion, as the safest way to vote amidst a life-threat­en­ing pandem­ic—and they will do so whether states are ready or not. Prepar­ing for this expan­sion of absentee voting requires large-scale prepar­a­tion and money—the kind of money that only the U.S. Congress is capable of provid­ing. In March, Congress provided $400 million to states to start making some of the adjust­ments required. This is only a frac­tion of the $4 billion that’s needed.

Rather than arguing over whether to expand mail voting, we should accept that it is happen­ing and do everything possible to make sure that states are prepared to run cred­ible, safe and fair elec­tions this year. The altern­at­ive is an elec­tion melt­down on an unpre­ced­en­ted scale.

COVID-19 is test­ing our demo­cracy. By taking the steps needed to expand mail voting (while ensur­ing safe polling places) ahead of the Novem­ber elec­tion, we can prevent it from also under­min­ing our demo­cracy.

Correc­tion: An earlier version misstated the percent­age of vote-by-mail fraud in Oregon since 2000. It is 0.00001 percent of all votes cast not 0.0000001 percent.