The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Americans to change the way they vote, from in person to mail balloting. Priscilla Southwell writes that, despite significant scaremongering, there is little evidence that voting by mail increases fraud. Instead, she argues, it can increase voter safety during the pandemic and also makes it easier for voters from both parties to vote.
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On November 3, 2020, a majority of registered voters in the United States will have the opportunity to vote at home. They will either automatically receive a ballot in the mail, or request an absentee ballot, at least three weeks before Election Day. After marking the ballot, the voter then puts the ballot in a secrecy envelope, which contains no identifying information. The secrecy envelope is then placed into a second mailing envelope for mailing. Each voter is required to sign the outside of this mailing envelope, which can then either be mailed or taken to one of the numerous drop-off sites in the community. When the ballots arrive at the local county election office, the outside signature is then compared to the original registration signature on record, to protect against fraud. If this signature does not match the registration signature, the ballot will not be counted.
This seemingly simple process has, unfortunately, become increasingly controversial and complicated, as public officials and party leaders argue over the details of mail voting, such as the required date of the postmark or when election officials can start counting the ballots — to name just a few of the issues. Currently, there are over 300 legal cases involving vote by mail, across 44 states. And many disparaging comments have been made in the media about vote by mail, even from those who have consistently voted absentee in the past.
The benefits of vote-by-mail
Primarily these battles have arisen because of the perception that vote by mail favors one party over another. However, there is no evidence of such partisan advantage. In fact, recent analysis by Daniel Thompson and co-authors found that: (1) vote by mail does not appear to affect either party’s share of turnout; (2) vote by mail does not appear to increase either party’s vote share; and (3) vote by mail modestly increases overall average turnout rates. They state: “All three conclusions support the conventional wisdom of election administration experts and contradict many popular claims in the media.”
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Vote-by-mail simply makes it easier to vote. It helps older and rural voters, who are more likely to be Republican, by reducing the impact of unanticipated difficulties, such as illness, inclement weather, or a lengthy travel time to the polls. Young voters, who are more likely to be Democratic, often face inflexible work schedules or lack adequate transportation to the polls. For all types of voters, vote by mail simply reduces the likelihood that an unexpected crisis will prevent a voter from getting to the polls. As a personal anecdote, three members of my department did not vote in the 1982 general election in Oregon, before the adoption of vote by mail. One had a serious bike accident the day before; another discovered at 5 p.m. that his car battery was dead; and I was in the hospital having my son. When three political scientists cannot vote on Election Day, there is something not quite right. More importantly, with vote by mail, no one has to wait for hours in long lines during a pandemic.
They myth of voter fraud
The other major concern involves the potential for voter fraud. Again, prior elections in those five states that have used universal mail voting for decades (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah) have shown minimal examples of voter fraud, and most of these cases have involved unintentional errors or a mistaken belief that one could sign the mailing envelope for a family member. Work from this year by Amber McReynolds and Charles Stewart, for instance, cites the Heritage Foundation’s database of election fraud cases, which includes slightly over 1,200 cases of voter fraud, with just 143 convictions, over the past twenty years. As these authors note, this translates to an average of three cases per state over this 20-year period. An analysis by Wendy Weiser and Harold Ekeh in April came to a similar conclusion.
Previous research on vote by mail has generally supported the argument that this kind of voting increases turnout, although not for every type of election. My research from 2018 on overall turnout in 61 Oregon elections from 1980-2016, including both polling place elections and voter by mail elections, suggested that vote by mail boosts turnout modestly, particularly in special and presidential elections. These results are not surprising, given that special elections are usually low-stimulus elections, often centering on one replacement seat or ballot measure. In such a situation, even committed voters might find it less important to go to the polling place for a single issue, but the vote by mail format makes it easier for them to vote on even one ballot measure or race. We can also expect the positive effect of vote by mail to occur for the high-stimulus presidential election, as these elections typically motivate first-time voters, who may have had difficulty locating their polling place in traditional elections, but will have no such problems under vote by mail.
As I’ve noted, vote by mail generally increases turnout. The 2-3 week voting period contributes to the increased participation under vote by mail. In essence, the potential voter is not rushed; there is ample time to review any voter’s pamphlets or editorials, consult with others, or simply deliberate about the electoral options. Vote by mail eases the burden of voting by reducing the impact of unanticipated difficulties, such as illness or inclement weather, which often prevent individuals from voting on Election Day. A potential voter also does not have to worry about long lines at the polling place, transportation to the polling place, or making special work arrangements. As such, vote by mail makes it easier to vote, and is very popular in those states that use it exclusively. A 2016 survey in Oregon showed that 87 percent of the respondents had a positive view of vote by mail. I have conducted two statewide surveys in Oregon over the years, and a nearly identical percentage of Republicans and Democrats are strongly supportive of vote by mail, and the same is true of elected officials in our state.
Concerns about any unintended and unforeseen consequences of electoral reform are inevitable and understandable, but there is no evidence that the five universal vote by mail states have experienced any significant problems arising from using the system. There may be some obstacles for those states that are using vote by mail or a hybrid system for the first time this year, but the benefits are quite apparent. The unusual circumstances of the 2020 election may mean that vote by mail becomes an increasingly popular method of voting.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, or of the London School of Economics.
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About the author
Priscilla Lewis Southwell – University of Oregon
Priscilla Lewis Southwell is Professor Emerita of Political Science at the University of Oregon. Her research interests include political behavior, US politics, and European politics.