With no sign of coronavirus disappearing by the November election, the United States has to consider alternatives to the traditional polling station system. The pandemic makes the regular organization of polling stations unsafe. Yet, social distancing requirements reduce the number of voting machines and voters allowed inside a polling place at one time. This produces unreasonably long lines that could deter voters, such as during the Georgia primary, where wait times were three or more hours. These challenges have made the mail-in ballot seem the likely alternative to in-person voting. Though mail-in ballots have multiple benefits, implementing this system may be challenging because of timing and budget constraints and the misconceptions surrounding it.
Although there are concerns that mail-in ballots will increase voter fraud or disproportionately benefit one political party, the mail-in ballot should be widely available in all states for the upcoming presidential election because it is safer than in-person voting and may increase general voter turnout.
The Mail-In Ballot
States have a wide variety of systems for conducting vote-by-mail. Some of the different options are excuse required absentee; no-excuse required absentee; permanent absentee voting, where a voter signs once to receive an absentee ballot for all future elections; and vote by mail, where all voters in the jurisdiction receive a ballot in the mail. Only five states traditionally conduct all-mail elections: Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon, and Hawaii. In 2016, research claimed two in every five ballots, or around 57.2 million votes, were cast early, absentee, or by mail.
In response to the pandemic, some states have altered their voting regulations to make vote-by-mail more accessible. Currently, about 76% of American voters have the option to vote by mail for the presidential election, according to The Washington Post. Yet, there are eight states that require in-person voting unless the voter can provide a reason besides COVID-19 fears. Though some states want to maintain in-person voting, this system is already proving inefficient in the midst of a pandemic.
The recent state primaries display how the pandemic puts pressure on polling stations. There have been poll staff shortages because most are over the age of 60. Staff shortages have forced states to close polling stations, which makes long lines and wait times at the remaining stations. Social distancing within the stations has exacerbated these wait times, as the number of voting machines and voters allowed in the polling station at one time has been reduced. In-person voting systems fail to operate effectively during the pandemic, suggesting that mail-in ballots may provide the solution to unreasonable lines on Election Day. But the concerns surrounding this alternative may prevent it from being implemented.
There is a fear that mail-in ballots will increase voter fraud. This fear is clearly held and heavily spread by President Trump. He claims that vote-by-mail is “fraudulent” and “inaccurate” because ballots would be stolen from mailboxes, signatures would be forged, or ballots would be illegally printed. Trump is not alone in thinking mail-in-ballots encourage fraud. Others worry that a widespread, hastily-organized vote-by-mail system would be disastrous because blank ballots would be delivered to incorrect addresses. There are justifiable concerns about implementing a relatively experimental voting system with little preparation or funding. But there is no evidence that vote-by-mail increases voter fraud.
There is some vote-by-mail fraud, but, according to NPR, it is “minuscule in the context of the hundreds of millions of ballots that have been cast in the past decade.” The Brennan Center for Justice reinforces this finding that there is no evidence of voting-by-mail resulting in significant fraud, as it occurs at a similar level as in-person voting. There is no increase because states have systems to ensure the mail-in-ballot is safe, such as assigning a code to each voter and placing barcodes on the ballot’s envelope, having secure drop-off locations, or verifying the voter’s signature and information with voter registration records. An increase in fraud is a false concern, but there is also an unfounded fear that the mail-in ballot will influence partisan politics.
Republican government officials, especially Trump, claim that voting by mail would disproportionately benefit the Democrats. In a March interview, Trump stated that if mail-in ballots were increased, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Some Republicans believe that Democrats will receive more votes because groups who typically vote in low numbers, such as the young, low-income people, or those without transportation, are more likely to vote due to the ease and convenience of the mail-in ballot. But research from Stanford University has shown that universal vote-by-mail does not benefit one specific party. While experts are unsure how the pandemic may impact this specific election, the evidence suggests that mail-in ballots will not provide a disproportionate advantage to either party. Even though the fears of this system are unfounded, it may nonetheless be difficult to implement.
Current Barriers To This System
The lack of preparation and funding could make voting by mail inefficient. To implement universal vote-by-mail, states would have to alter how they store, process, and distribute ballots to registered voters, and adjust polling staff to sort and count the votes. It would require voters to plan for the deadlines, with them, ideally, requesting a ballot early and sending it back before Election Day. It would require more funding for postage, machines to scan ballots, and to develop an efficient process for mail-in ballots. So far, there is only about $400 million to make these changes, yet some predict nearly $4 billion is necessary in order to dramatically change and update our vote-by-mail systems. With only a few months before the election, many are concerned that the United States is not doing enough to prepare and that the election results will be delayed. The United States should fund and develop the vote-by-mail system, not only because it will be safer during the pandemic, but because it has additional advantages.
The mail-in ballot protects voters’ health because, unlike in-person voting, it eliminates any contact a voter may have with other voters, poll workers, or voting machines. It is also more convenient because voters can fill out the ballot when they want from their home rather than waiting in a long line on Election Day. Research shows that around 59% of voters support holding all elections by mail. Convenience can also help increase voter turnout in both blue and red states. A report from Nonprofit Vote shows that in 2018, three out of four “vote at home” states, including Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, ranked in the top ten for turnout. Utah, another vote at home state, had one of the largest growths in voter turnout in 2018. It also found that states with vote-by-mail had a turnout of 15.5 percentage points higher than states with traditional polling. This voting system may come with challenges, but its implementation could provide a more convenient way to vote and an increase in voter turnout.
What Will Happen In November?
This election is significant, but now, the possibility of trying to organize and change how Americans vote in the midst of a pandemic makes the 2020 election exceptional and experimental. The United States should consider how it will protect voting rights and the health of voters. The nation should ensure the safety, convenience, and rights of voters by funding and organizing the vote-by-mail system. But with time running out until November, this election could either lead to a voting disaster or could pave the way to the future of voting systems in the United States.