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Why a Vote-by-Mail Option Is Necessary

Vote by mail is one essential way to ensure the 2020 election can go on safely, securely, and on time.

Last Updated: April 16, 2020
Published: April 7, 2020

As the coronavirus ravages the coun­try, pres­id­en­tial primary elec­tions have been among the casu­al­ties. At least 16 states have already delayed some elec­tions or allowed citizens to vote by mail with exten­ded dead­lines.

The latter move has helped renew a conten­tious debate in Wash­ing­ton, DC, and across the coun­try: should a vote-by-mail option be widely avail­able in all states before the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion to help protect voters and poll work­ers from Covid-19?

The Bren­nan Center believes it should, as do many state and local elec­tion offi­cials of both parties. Pres­id­ent Trump warned that these changes would lead to “levels of voting” that would hurt him and his party, even though Repub­lic­ans have long suppor­ted the option. Recog­niz­ing that argu­ment could not be sustained publicly, the pres­id­ent now worries about fraud, claim­ing “a lot of people cheat with mail in voting.”

In fact, much of the coun­try votes by mail already. (Indeed, so does Pres­id­ent Trump, who votes by absentee ballot.) There is ample exper­i­ence to show that a vote-by-mail option is safe and gives citizens the abil­ity to parti­cip­ate.

More broadly, the coronavirus has given us no choice. If we want to have an elec­tion that is free, fair, secure, and safe, we must have the option for people to vote by mail in Novem­ber.

Why is vote by mail neces­sary?

The coronavirus has made congreg­at­ing in small, enclosed spaces danger­ous. At many polling places, voters — partic­u­larly of color and from poorer communit­ies — already wait in long, crowded lines to vote. During a pandemic, such lines would force citizens to choose between their health and their right to vote. 

We must be able to run a free, fair, and safe elec­tion in Novem­ber. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Insti­tute of Allergy and Infec­tious Diseases, has already warned that the virus will almost certainly “strike again” this fall. That makes vote by mail an essen­tial way for voters to stay safe while exer­cising their right to choose who governs them. To ignore, and even block, a solu­tion that main­tains our elect­oral system would be demo­cratic malprac­tice.

The nation already had a preview of what an elec­tion should not look like under pandemic condi­tions in Wiscon­sin’s April 7 pres­id­en­tial primary. A crit­ical short­age of poll work­ers. Shuttered polling loca­tions. Long lines made even longer because of social distan­cing. People in protect­ive masks. Members of the National Guard staff­ing the remain­ing polling stations.

To make sure that vote by mail and other crit­ical capa­city-build­ing can be imple­men­ted in time for Novem­ber, we have to start putting new processes in place now. Unlike primar­ies, the general elec­tion can’t be moved. That’s why the Bren­nan Center has asked Congress to provide at least $4 billion for states to use in this fight. Those funds will enable states to protect elec­tion integ­rity in Novem­ber. Since our found­ing, neither war nor pesti­lence has ever preven­ted Amer­ic­ans from voting. We can’t let the coronavirus break that streak. 

Isn’t vote by mail a radical depar­ture from how U.S. elec­tions are conduc­ted?

Much of the coun­try now votes by mail. It’s already deeply embed­ded into the Amer­ican elect­oral system.

Twenty-three percent of ballots were cast by mail in 2016, and twenty-six percent of ballots were cast by mail in 2018. Five states — Hawaii, Utah, Oregon, Wash­ing­ton, and Color­ado — will run all-mail elec­tions this year. And in 28 states and the District of Columbia, any voter has the right to request a mail ballot without excuse in Novem­ber. Some of these — like Cali­for­nia — are big states that have made vote-by-mail a core way they run elec­tions.

Many more states have a vote-by-mail option, but they are ill-equipped to handle the signi­fic­ant increase in the number of ballots that would come in amid the pandemic. They need, first and fore­most, funds from the federal govern­ment. 

Currently, 17 states — includ­ing Alabama, New York, and New Hamp­shire — need to change their policies to guar­an­tee that all who want to vote by mail in Novem­ber can. Restrict­ing who can vote by mail this year at best makes voting unne­ces­sar­ily diffi­cult, and at worst puts their citizens at unne­ces­sary risk of catch­ing the coronavirus. If these states are to provide all voters a vote-by-mail option before the Novem­ber elec­tion, they must start prepar­a­tions now.

Won’t fraud discredit elec­tions where vote by mail is wide­spread?

No. There is no evid­ence that voting by mail results in signi­fic­ant fraud. As with in-person voting, the threat is infin­ites­im­ally small.

As Sen. Michael Bennet of Color­ado reminded Pres­id­ent Trump after he opposed vote by mail on fraud grounds, “Mr. Pres­id­ent, we’ve had vote by mail in Color­ado for years. We don’t have fraud. But we do have the second highest turnout in Amer­ica.”

What secur­ity meas­ures can be taken to protect against vote-by-mail fraud?

There are many. The ballot envel­ope itself can be designed to prevent fraud. Voters have to sign the envel­ope, and that signa­ture can be compared to the one that’s already on file for the voter. It’s import­ant to note, though, that there are best and worst prac­tices with signa­ture match­ing. When done incor­rectly, it can disen­fran­chise eligible voters. Done correctly — which includes a review by a bipar­tisan group of elec­tion offi­cials — it can be an effect­ive deterrent for fraud.

States can also track ballots in transit. Much like a FedEx pack­age, the ballot comes with a barcode that allows elec­tion offi­cials and voters to track where the ballot is through­out the process. Most people who vote this way, however, do not send in ballots by mail. Instead, they drop them off at secure govern­ment offices or other loca­tions. Accord­ing to MIT’s elec­tion lab, in 2016:

73% of voters in Color­ado, 59% in Oregon and 65% in Wash­ing­ton returned their ballots to some phys­ical loca­tion such as a drop box or local elec­tion office. Even among those who returned their ballots by mail in these states, 47% dropped off their ballot at a U.S. Post Office or neigh­bor­hood mail­box rather than having their own postal worker pick it up at home.

These drop boxes can be made more secure with cameras or other secur­ity meas­ures.

Finally, post-elec­tion audits can identify any irreg­u­lar­it­ies that may remain. In 2018, a congres­sional elec­tion in North Caro­lina was marred by absentee ballot miscon­duct by a Repub­lican polit­ical oper­at­ive, requir­ing a revote. That miscon­duct was caught by a state post-elec­tion invest­ig­a­tion.

Is univer­sal vote by mail the solu­tion for the 2020 elec­tion?

The Bren­nan Center has not called for voting only by mail in 2020. Even if it were a good idea, it would be impossible to imple­ment it in such a short time. Fully parti­cip­at­ory elec­tions in many states will require ample in-person voting oppor­tun­it­ies. At a time of pandemic, that means adequate early voting so that people do not crowd polling places on Elec­tion Day.

Moreover, some communit­ies don’t have reli­able access to the mail. Many Native Amer­ican reser­va­tions, for example, don’t have addresses recog­nized by the U.S. Postal Service and there­fore resid­ents must rely on P.O. boxes far from their homes for mail. Some voters also rely on assist­ance — whether it’s trans­la­tion or specially designed machines for those with disab­il­it­ies — to cast their ballots.

The goal for every member of Congress, every state legis­lature, and every elec­tion offi­cial should be simple: ensure that anyone who has the right to vote can exer­cise that right as simply and safely as possible. This should­n’t be a partisan issue but a patri­otic duty. Vote by mail is just one option among many to accom­plish that goal.