If you’ve been at least a moderate lurker of social media within the past few weeks, there’s no doubt you’ve seen something about mail-in voting pop up on your feed — either in favor or opposition. Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it serves as yet another way that political discourse has remained a focus of the current health crisis, one that has now resulted in more than 100,000 American deaths.
Essentially, mail-in voting, or postal voting, is when the electorate is granted the ability to cast votes by mail, rather than strictly in-person at a voting booth. It is not a novel concept, as all states allow residents to vote by mail in certain circumstances, such as absentee ballots. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington operated under automatic, or all-mail, voting systems prior to the pandemic, with votes in all elections cast primarily by mail in those states.
Even for opponents, it would be hard to not understand the case for mail-in voting — at least this year. For nearly the entire spring season, the United States all but closed shop, shutting down commerce at virtually every level. Here in Arkansas, for almost two months, restaurants were limited to takeout/delivery only; salons and barbershops closed entirely; every student in the state became homeschooled, in a sense, with no in-person classes, proms or regularly scheduled graduations. At the height of the pandemic’s plight, many grocers even began limiting the number of patrons allowed in-store at one given time.
Elsewhere, organizers canceled and/or postponed indefinitely entire sports seasons — perhaps most notably the NCAA canceling its annual postseason basketball tournament, one with a nickname that best sums up the unprecedented nature to which everything happened around that time: “March Madness.” Instead of filling up office pools with tournament brackets, work stations collected dust as most learned how to efficiently work from home.
All this considered, it would seem only natural that another example of mass public gathering could be altered in some way come November as a public health precaution — voting. But, as with most modern political affairs, the increased talk of mail-in voting has been abundant in its antagonism.
The divide between those for and against a more universal mail-in voting system seems to be split directly down party lines, at least in Washington. The most recognizable naysayer belongs to the highest office in the land — President Donald Trump.
Just this week, Trump issued the following statement on Twitter:
“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes [sic] will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one … That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote. This will be a Rigged Election. No way!”
The president’s tweet thread has since garnered more than 200,000 likes and nearly 75,000 retweets. The messaging also earned the president his first-ever fact check label, slapped below the tweets, which Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said was for misleading “people into thinking they don’t need to register to get a ballot,” since only registered voters receive election ballots.
As to the president’s base claim that mail-in ballots will be “substantially fraudulent,” some of it might stem from a recent study conducted by a conservative-leaning legal group, Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), that collected data from the Election Administration and Voting Survey to find that 28.3 million mail-in ballots from 2012 to 2018 are unaccounted for. In a follow-up statement to the report, PILF president, J. Christian Adams, said that this represented “28 million opportunities for someone to cheat.”
Probably not at the center of the president’s argument, but relevant nonetheless: In 2018, Leslie McCrae Dowless, a Republican political operative, was caught tampering with absentee ballots in the election for North Carolina’s 9th congressional district on behalf of the Republican candidate, Mark Harris. Last year, Dowless was charged with obstruction of justice, perjury, solicitation to commit perjury, conspiracy to obstruct justice and illegal possession of absentee ballots. The election — which Harris won by less than 1,000 votes against the Democratic opponent, Dan McCready — was overturned and rescheduled. Harris did not run in the replacement election.
Less maliciously, some skeptics also argue other present hindrances of a countrywide automatic voting system. As it currently stands, in the majority of the country, mail-in voting is conducted on a request-only basis. If every registered voter is mailed a ballot, and this year’s election is decided mainly by those votes, that could create potential problems unrelated to fraud — lost ballots to previous addresses for those who’ve moved, and mail-in ballots being less likely to be counted, as some studies show, especially in the cases of younger, minority and first-time voters.
All in Favor
But there do exist a few issues with the fraud-related criticisms that proponents of mail-in voting and those who live in an objectively based reality will quickly point out.
For one, mail-in voting’s critic-in-chief, President Trump, votes by mail — and has done so several times in recent years.
Last week, White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany defended questions about the president’s voting record, saying that, “The president is, after all, the president, which means he’s here in Washington. He’s unable to cast his vote down in Florida, his state of residence.”
But prior to changing his primary residence to Florida in October 2019, nearly the entire Trump family voted by mail in the 2017 New York mayoral election and both the president and first lady did so for the 2018 midterm election in New York. It wasn’t until this year that the president first mailed-in a vote to Florida.
In fact, McEnany herself has been a regular postage voter. According to the Tampa Bay Times, she has voted by mail 11 times over the past 10 years.
This provides the perception that the president and his posse are engaging in hypocrisy — “do as I say, eliminate mail-in voting, not as I do, voting by mail.”
In a statement issued by McEnany in response to the story, she said, “Absentee voting has the word absent in it for a reason. It means you’re absent from the jurisdiction or unable to vote in person. President Trump is against the Democrat plan to politicize the coronavirus and expand mass mail-in voting without a reason, which has a high propensity for voter fraud. This is a simple distinction that the media fails to grasp.”
But, the state of Florida, helmed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, does not limit voting by mail to absentee voters only. Anyone in the state who is registered to vote can request a mail-in ballot. Furthermore, the assertion that the wishes of Democrats is to “expand mass mail-in voting without a reason” is rather unfounded, for the entire reason (according to most in favor) is to provide voters in November a safe way to conduct their civic duties without fear of getting infected with a deadly disease for which there is yet no cure.
And there is no legitimate proof that “rampant voter fraud” has any semblance of truth to it, by mail or otherwise.
According to numerous studies conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, Loyola Law School, FactCheck.org, and more, the amount of actual voter fraud is too negligible to even register a blip on the radar. Ellen Weintraub, the current commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, said there was “no basis” to such claims. Former Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, used similar language in March, going a step further to say that, “It’s time for conservatives to get behind much broader use of mail-in absentee ballots and consider a broader switch to voting by mail. During the coronavirus crisis, both practices would help more people vote safely without offering a clear advantage to any faction.”
After winning in 2016, President Trump sought out to prove some of these voter fraud objectors wrong. He created a Voter Fraud Commission which would allegedly prove that “millions of votes” were done so illegally in the same election he’d won. By 2018, that same commission had produced no such evidence, and was “disbanded.”
Now, four years later, the president continues to parrot these claims in this new war against mail-in voting, without any substantive evidence.
However, even though it is scarce, when it does happen — like in North Carolina’s 9th in 2018 — it can delegitimize an entire election. But, that doesn’t mean we should then say, “Well, it’s happened before so we need to now abolish mail-in voting.” When someone steals a Kit Kat from the corner store, we don’t discontinue chocolate candy bars nor close all of the establishments they’re sold in. The system finds a way to make it right — and we all understand that the vast majority of people actually pay for their Kit Kats. In the case of North Carolina, the person responsible for carrying out fraud via mail-in vote was charged and the election was redone.
But a critique by opponents that mail-in voting is simply not perfect is warranted, with plenty of examples of votes mailed but not tallied, for reasons ranging from postage errors to ballots being filled out incorrectly. It’s not as simple as walking into a polling place, touching a few buttons on a screen and walking away. If we are to adopt large-scale vote by mail this fall, those questions should find answers. We have plenty of time to do so.
For now, anyway. But it should be pointed out that changing the essence of how an election is conducted has to be done so scrupulously, and planning for this new potential reality needs to begin sooner, rather than later. Look at the most recent Democratic primary in Iowa — the caucus rules were changed this year, and it was a mess. In many states that offer mail-in voting, legitimizing ballots requires voter-specific barcodes (which also help voters ensure their ballot is received), signature match, and more. If too many states take the wait-and-see approach, we might have a constitutional crisis on our hands in November. It is well-known that the incumbent president has an eye for assuming voter fraud, and his dissentients likely view him as corrupt; either side could accuse the other of foul play if the election is close and merely one instance of purported inequity or misbehavior is found.
But doing nothing to appease voters amid a health crisis is an injustice worse than a few instances of mail-in barratry. Voting is an American right, after all. In a democracy such as ours, many would argue that we should make voting more accessible, not less. Democrats would declare that point in general; most, regardless of politics, should plead it in the middle of one of the worst pandemics in history.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Thursday, 59 percent of Americans believe their state should expand mail-in voting, broken down to 83 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that two-thirds of Americans support an all-mail option countrywide if it’s limited to this November. This, at the very least, suggests that the emphatic protesters to mail-in voting, led by the president, are in the waning minority.
Of all the things we have been able to safely find ways to do amid this pandemic, we can surely find a way to safely hold an election.