As the coronavirus pandemic continues to hold the world economy in its grip and grind normal life to a halt, COVID-19 fears have spread throughout just about every facet of life. And as we have seen in states such as Wisconsin, the conversation has included voting. While many states postponed voting thus far into 2020, states including Wisconsin and Florida chose to hold their elections as normally scheduled, heating up a debate as to whether in-person voting should still be held in the time of coronavirus — and the feasibility of transitioning elections nationwide to be all vote-by-mail (VBM).
Regardless of any debates about ethics, safety, freedom, etc., transitioning all elections to just vote-by-mail is not simple. There is no metaphorical switch to flip where elected or appointed officials can designate all voting to be done through a post office. Still, a lot of states have some measure of VBM in place, so it’s not impossible. The possibility of coronavirus dying down through summer not withstanding, how viable is it to transition all upcoming voting to VBM-only? Some factors that support the expansion of VBM, while others are a hindrance.
What’s Working In Favor of VBM Expansion
Almost every state has some measure of VBM, and in some cases there is a robust structure for it. Five states currently have an automatic mail-in ballot system where every voter receives a ballot in the mail by default: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.¹ ² In California, Nebraska, and North Dakota, counties can opt into administering all of their elections by mail.³ Many other states permit certain jurisdictions to administer elections entirely by mail.
You’ll often hear VBM used interchangeably with the term “absentee.” As the name indicates, absentee voting allows registered voters to cast a ballot while not showing up in person. This is broken down into two categories: Excuse and no-excuse. In no-excuse absentee ballot states, anybody can request a ballot to be mailed to them for any reason. In excuse-required absentee ballot states, a voter has to give a reason considered legitimate to obtain one (e.g. physical disability, being out of the county at the time of the election). There are 29 states, as well as D.C., that have implemented no-excuse absentee voting, while 16 states require voters to provide an excuse for absentee voting.⁴
While it likely that support for it has noticeably increased due to its salience, the expansion of VBM is seeing rising support among Americans. This is the case for both Republicans and Democrats, although more so the latter.⁵ Whether that incentivizes government officials to expand VBM remains to be seen, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the pro-expansion side.
The availability of polls workers is also a big concern. News outlets have reported some cases where poll workers have gotten sick with COVID-19 — and some have even died. Others have worried about the possibility and have opted out of working the polls. It also doesn’t help that poll workers and validated voters skew towards the older demographics, who are particularly susceptible to coronavirus. If too many poll workers opt out, governments could respond by expanding VBM — or by decreasing the number of polling places available, which would bring its own problems such as concerns about voter suppression.
What’s Working Against VBM Expansion
Despite so many states using some measure of VBM, it is difficult to make a full expansion of VBM such as what is being currently debated. Unless you are in a profession directly involved in politics, you probably hear little to nothing about the inner workings of mail-in balloting. There are a lot of laws, both big and small, that go into making the infrastructure for mail-in voting possible, and each state varies in what its laws allow.
This doesn’t just concern what jurisdictions are legally allowed to administer all-mail elections. Other minutiae that are important include:
- Who is allowed to return the ballots: States have different rules regarding who is allowed to return an individual voter’s ballot. Alabama only allows the voter to return their own ballot. Other states allow that voter to designate anyone to send in the mail ballot while some only allow specific kinds of people to return the mail ballot.⁶
- When ballots have to be received: Some states and/or counties only require mailed-in ballots to simply be time-stamped before the voting deadline, while others require the ballot to reach a supervisor of elections’ office before the deadline regardless of when it was mailed.
- Financial costs associated with all-mail elections: Mailing isn’t free. That might sound obvious, but it isn’t just voters paying to mail their ballots. County supervisors of elections already mail out sample ballots to every registered voter, meaning that they’d have to spend more money to then mail every voter an official ballot. It may not seem like much, and for a lot of counties this may not be a problem. Other counties, however, will have a harder time with it, and counties vary widely in how many registered voters live there. Coronavirus has tightened county budgets everywhere with resulting revenue shortfalls, which can hamstring some counties’ efforts.
- Voter turnout: Many registered voters, despite being on voter rolls, don’t vote, meaning money spent on printing and mailing ballots is used on ballots that are never going to be returned. Granted, this might not directly affect the expansion of VBM, but it is something to consider.
General changes in protocols and logistics such as the aforementioned and many others require all relevant government employees to be on the same page. There are all sorts of big and little things that they have to know and do correctly to ensure elections are administered properly. That we have 50 very different states with very different political realities makes things even more complicated.
VBM and Voter Integrity: Do We Often See Suppression or Fraud?
Integrity of elections has always been a hot topic, but it has only gotten more so in recent years. Typically, the debate centers on voter suppression versus voter fraud. It’s a very partisan issue, with Democrats often seeing voter suppression as rampant while Republicans often see voter fraud as pervasive.
Is either right — or even both? That depends on who you ask. Certainly, examples of both exist if you look for it, but whether they are widespread is almost always seen through a partisan lens.
In any case, suppression and fraud aren’t new phenomena either. Voter suppression existed for a long time in the South during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the 13th Amendment granting racial minorities the right to vote, Southern governments found “creative” ways to circumvent the law while technically still adhering to it. These came in the form of Jim Crow laws, which prevented racial minorities from voting while not actually taking away suffrage. Poll taxes, for example, were often too expensive for them to pay, stopping them from casting a ballot (this practice would be officially abolished with the 24th Amendment).
In the case of voter fraud, Chicago’s history of corruption has long been the butt of election integrity jokes, such as with the phrase “vote early and vote often.” The heyday of party machines overlapped a lot of the time of Jim Crow laws, and they ruled the election infrastructure of some of the biggest cities in America. The most notorious of these was Tammany Hall under William “Boss” Tweed. The majority party in these cases would control virtually the entire election process such as by printing out their own ballots, although sometimes there were multiple intraparty factions squabbling for power. While this was (at least sometimes) technically not against cities’ laws, we can look back at how ripe fraud could be in these situations.
Coming back to the present day, voter suppression and voter fraud still have plenty of relevance. Restrictions on ex-felons’ right to vote is often criticized as suppressive. The most prominent case right now is the current felon voting rights’ trial for Florida, specifically centering around whether felons have to pay restitution to regain the right to vote. North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District’s 2018 election is a recent case of voter fraud, where a campaign operative tampered with absentee ballots.
The expansion of VBM certainly has potential to see some voter suppression or fraud, but whether it will and how much is up for debate.
VBM Expansion This Year and Beyond
It is impossible for most, if not all, primaries to see expanded VBM this year. Many primaries have already been canceled, and ones that are coming up soon can’t implement it in time. So will we see it come November? Right now, it’s anyone’s guess.
For what it’s worth, VBM/absentee voting has been gradually increasing over time, in part due to more states giving more opportunities to do so.⁷ Early voting has also seen an upward trend, at the expense of traditionally voting on Election Day. While some have argued that such opportunities to vote in ways other than on Election Day has already — and will continue to — increase voter turnout, others are skeptical that this is the case.⁷ ⁸
For the proponents and opponents of VBM expansion, it’s anyone’s game. There’s a lot going for expansion but there’s also a lot of roadblocks. Although the salience of the topic will dwindle when coronavirus is eventually under control — which is almost guaranteed to not be the case until at least early 2021 — proponents could see their wishes come true in a future election if not this year.
- Ballotpedia. “All-mail Voting.” https://ballotpedia.org/All-mail_voting (accessed April 21, 2020).
- National Conference of State Legislatures. “Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail and other Voting at Home Options.” https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx (accessed April 21, 2020).
- National Conference of State Legislatures. “All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-By-Mail).” https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/all-mail-elections.aspx (accessed April 21, 2020).
- Ballotpedia. “Absentee voting.” https://ballotpedia.org/Absentee_voting (accessed April 21, 2020).
- Gallup. “Most Americans Favor Voting by Mail as Option in November.” May 12, 2020. https://news.gallup.com/poll/310586/americans-favor-voting-mail-option-november.aspx (accessed May 21, 2020).
- Ballotpedia. “Mail ballot collection and return laws by state.” https://ballotpedia.org/Mail_ballot_collection_and_return_laws_by_state (accessed April 21, 2020).
- MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “Voting by mail and absentee voting.” https://electionlab.mit.edu/research/voting-mail-and-absentee-voting (accessed May 21, 2020).
- Adam J. Berinsky. 2005. “The Perverse Consequences of Electoral Reform.” American Politics Research 33 (July): 471–491.