As cases of COVID-19 are once again growing at an unprecedented rate, election officials are reconsidering the logistics of the November elections amidst the health crisis. Last Monday, Massachusetts passed legislation to automatically send out a ballot request form to all registered voters, joining several other states in expanding mail-in voting. On Tuesday, New Jersey conducted one of the first primaries where all voters received a ballot in the mail without submitting a request form, joining Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, Utah, and Oregon in implementing 100% vote-by-mail elections. Several online petitions are demanding other states to follow New Jersey’s example, with some suggesting a national plan to drastically extend mail-in voting.
For many voters, especially those who are elderly or at risk for complications, voting in-person may increase their chances of being exposed to the virus. Since voting by mail allows these at-risk individuals to cast their ballots from the safety of their homes, many argue that such a policy would increase voter participation and strengthen fair and free elections. Yet many, including President Donald Trump, claim that mail-in voting encourages fraudulent behavior and could lead to a logistical nightmare involving millions of tax-payer dollars. Is voting by mail problematic as Trump claims, or do the benefits of the policy outweigh its drawbacks?
Critics of mail-in voting argue that such a system promotes fraud that interferes with the integrity of our elections. Trump has stated that this voting method poses a “tremendous potential for voting fraud” because election officials may send ballots to wrong addresses, voters may be coerced to vote one way or the other, and vote-buying schemes may flourish. While polling stations limit voter fraud by demanding voter-ID cards, voting-by-mail poses an unavoidable risk of voter impersonation – people can simply forge their votes on another voter’s ballot. Voter registration databases that operate mail-in voting are notoriously unreliable; Pew Research Center found that one out of every eight active voter registrations is no longer valid or significantly inaccurate. Consequently, if states institute a mass mailing system, ballots may be sent to deceased or unregistered voters, thereby facilitating voter fraud and undermining our elections’ integrity.
Although recent studies have shown that voting by mail leads to slightly more voter fraud than in-person voting, the amount of fraud is statistically insignificant and is unlikely to impact elections. Over the past twenty years, out of a total of 250 million ballots cast by mail, only 143 were found to be fraudulent. That’s a rate of only 0.00006%.
Trump and his Republican allies are using the guise of voter fraud to hide their true intentions: they are worried that this voting method could skew elections in the Democrats’ favor. Trump tweeted on April 8, 2020: “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting” because it “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” Trump’s crusade against voting-by-mail might be an attempt to suppress voters and sway the tide of the elections in his favor. Without a broad system of mail-in voting, many voters would not risk their health to vote at a polling place – leaving only the most passionate and dedicated supporters to vote in-person. And as the last couple of years have shown us, Trump wields millions of dedicated supporters who wouldn’t hesitate to go vote at a polling place even if that meant catching the virus. On the other hand, there are far fewer individuals who are as passionate for Biden – many Democrats may lack the motivation to risk their health to vote in-person. In general, groups who have historically shown low voting numbers – specifically young and black voters – are less likely to vote in-person on election day than other groups.
If states organize a universal mail-in service, more people would likely turn out to vote, leading many Republicans to believe that Democrats would then gain the advantage. Yet recent studies have shown that while mail-in voting increases voter turnout by 1.9 to 2.4%, this voting method does not increase the share for either Democrats or Republicans.
Due to Trump’s steadfast opposition to mail-in voting, Congress is unlikely to pass legislation for a nation-wide effort to enforce this voting method. Because states are responsible for regulating elections, they can each approach voting-by-mail differently depending on state-specific COVID-19 spread and organizational hurdles. For many states, establishing a robust voting-by-mail system can pose a plethora of funding and logistical issues that may remain unsolvable in the next four months leading up to November 3rd. Therefore, each state will most likely have a unique approach to election day involving a combination of in-person and mail-in voting.