How voting by mail could save the US election

published on July 20, 2020

On March 28, 2020, the governor of New York announced that he was delaying his state’s April election "I don’t think it’s wise to be bringing a lot of people to one location" 18 other states had already delayed or modified their spring elections "It would endanger public health to allow thousands of people to assemble" But the state of Wisconsin made a different call "The only state to move ahead with its election"

"Polls, if you can believe it, are open in Wisconsin this morning" On April 7, voters in Wisconsin got in line, waited for hours, standing 6 feet apart, wearing masks, with some poll workers in full protective gear One voter made a sign that seemed to sum up the situation perfectly: "People are calling it the photo of the year"

"Quote, This is ridiculous" I was sitting with my cardboard in my lap, I was like, “this whole thing is just ridiculous” The people who were supposed to be making sure things are safe for us, I felt like they kind of threw us under the wagon, you know? The next day, the governor of New Jersey announced they were postponing their election too "I don't want a Wisconsin, where folks had to pick

Between exercising their right to vote on the one hand, and protecting their own personal health" Wisconsin’s election highlights something that the US really needs to figure out soon In November, there’s an election to decide the next president But it’s highly unlikely that Covid-19 will be over and done with by then We might even be dealing with a second wave of it So, if public gatherings are a health risk,

How are you supposed to have an election? I'm coming to you from the Roberts family voting booth, here at my dining room table This is Dave He’s at home in Seattle, Washington Dave’s done a lot of reporting on what he says is a simple solution to how America can vote during the pandemic Tens of millions of people in America vote by mail now, every election And it's fine

Washington is one of the few states that runs its entire election through the mail I think I've been voting by mail since I got to Washington in 2000 Everyone who's done it loves it Voting by mail basically works by taking two important elements of voting: Verifying your identity, and filling out the ballot — And moving them from a polling place, to your home,

Where the ballot gets mailed a few weeks before the election And that has two really obvious benefits First: You can take as much time as you want You have literally weeks to do as much research as you want So when you fill that circle, you're like, I'm friggin’ voting

I'm capital-V voting right now And second: Voting by mail takes away a lot of the common reasons people don’t vote Being forced to take a day off work, find someone to watch your kids, or take your kids with you, and go to a crowded balloting place, hope that your name hasn't been struck from some roll for some random reason,

Wait for hours, three hours, five hours, in line Voting by mail clears those hurdles And the effects are really easy to see In 2018, a county in western Nebraska got permission from the state to run their entire election by mail Every voter there got a mail-in ballot, while voters in the rest of the state voted the old-fashioned way

Across Nebraska, voter turnout was 24% But in that one county, it was more than double that Turns out that making it easier to vote, means more people vote On average, states with all-mail voting systems have a higher turnout than other states A poll from April 2020 found that Americans would overwhelmingly be in favor of holding the next presidential election entirely by mail But that still leaves a chunk who aren’t sold on it

One reason is fraud: the possibility that your vote might be more likely to get lost, stolen or coerced, if you vote at home So I asked an expert on voting by mail how serious and common a risk this is "It's exceedingly rare" So I also asked someone who runs elections

"No widespread or systematic voter fraud" I asked a political scientist who’s an expert on election data "It’s highly unlikely anyone is going to steal your vote" An election law expert "The concerns about voter fraud are way overhyped" And an expert on voting rights

"You are still more likely to be struck by lightning than to find mail ballot fraud" The reason vote-by-mail fraud is rare is that even though, in theory, it's possible, it's not very effective It helps to think in terms of "wholesale fraud" vs "retail fraud" Election security experts worry about wholesale fraud: lots and lots of votes being tampered with at once

So, if a bunch of people are voting on a machine, you just have to hack the one machine, and you have access to thousands of votes Wholesale fraud, with one point of contact They’re a lot less worried about what they call "retail fraud": votes that get tampered with one at a time I mean, it is possible that someone could come by, and steal your ballot, fill it out,

Sign your name to it, and mail it in And they thereby would have accomplished changing one vote But even if that does happen, vote-by-mail systems typically give you a way to track your vote and make sure it’s been counted "You can track your ballot like an Amazon package It does not get much more secure than that"

"You can actually go on our system and track it, from when they receive it, when they verify the signature, and when it’s ready to count If they haven’t returned that ballot, I guarantee you that the voter picks up the phone and calls those election officials" "The checks and balances that are in vote-by-mail In California, there are stronger and stricter guidelines on processing vote-by-mail

Than there are on in-person voters To me, it's a much more secure process" The same week that Wisconsin held its election, the state of Georgia sent all its voters forms that would let them request a mail ballot But Georgia’s Speaker of the House complained He said voting by mail benefits Democrats

"This will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia" But there’s no evidence that voting by mail is better for either party A study at Stanford found that it doesn’t get either party a bigger share of either turnout or the vote itself All it does is increase the number of people who vote "We haven't seen any benefit to one party over another"

"There's nothing political about voting and more people voting is a good thing" "Providing that all vote-by-mail experience didn’t change those dynamics People were still voting the way they wanted to vote" "I'm pretty sure I’m living proof that you can elect a Republican in a blue state, and you can do it in a vote-by-mail environment" Every state in the US already has some kind of vote-by-mail option:

It’s called an absentee ballot But some states will only give you one if you have a good excuse, like if you’re out of town or in the military Other states offer a no-excuse absentee ballot, where you don’t need to give a reason But you still have to request it Voting by mail is something every state already allows

But very few states are actually prepared to do an entire election through the mail That’s what caused the problem in Wisconsin In 2016, about 250,000 Wisconsin voters requested an absentee ballot In 2020, about five times that number requested absentee ballots Wisconsin hadn’t prepared for that So a lot of people never got their ballots And had to go vote in person instead

I was one of over 55,000 people who had requested an absentee ballot who had not yet received it I am desperately hoping that we can make that an exclusive option, if we're still dealing with unsafe situations in November It would not be that difficult to ramp that up in time for the election I mean, you'd need to start now It's not trivial, but it's very doable In the five states that have all-mail voting, there’s still an option to vote in person:

A backup, mostly for people who didn’t get a ballot, or weren’t registered to vote in time But in most, places voting by mail is the backup And if lots of voters feel that voting in person isn't safe, a backup won't be good enough Preparing election systems for that will take time And right now, there is time But only if we start now

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