Sadly, state rules governing voting by mail, which may well be the only safe way to participate in democratic self-governance during a pandemic, are going to be the subject of intense partisan maneuvering between now and November. That’s mostly because certain Republicans, now led by Donald Trump, have decided that keeping voting by mail limited will hold down turnout among undesirable elements of the electorate. This is a bit odd, since traditionally Republicans have been more likely to vote by mail than Democrats, who have largely preferred in-person early voting as an alternative to traditional Election Day balloting.
But with COVID-19 hitting urban areas and minority folk particularly hard, Democrats are pushing for at least temporary liberalization of voting by mail. And as my colleague Jonathan Chait has noted, the once-cranky claim that voting remotely is inherently prone to fraud is now becoming GOP orthodoxy — so long as the voters in question represent Democratic constituencies. Trump himself has begun to lay out the new party line:
What POTUS seems to be pushing for is an old-school system that limits voting by mail to those who have an “excuse” for being absent on Election Day. Though the trend nationally is most definitely away from that kind of regime, it still widely persists, as I wrote recently in a roundup on voting-by-mail rules:
Fully 16 states limit remote voting to “absentee ballots” that must be requested by the voter along with an affadavit offering an excuse (typically some unavoidable absence from one’s residence on election day) for not being able to vote in person. Seven of those states waive the “excuse” requirement for voters over a certain age (usually 65). Some of the states that discourage voting by mail do offer early voting in-person (e.g., Texas and beginning this year, New York), which is sometimes viewed as the functional equivalent, but obviously is no substitute during a pandemic.
The seven states that generally discourage voting by mail but waive excuse requirements for Republican–leaning old folks are Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Coincidentally or not, these are all deep-red states carried by Trump in 2016, most of them by large margins (Texas, which went MAGA by nine points, was the closest). They appear to provide Trump’s model for the country as a whole.
The “fraud” claims that Trump and other conservatives associate with voting by mail are virtually all theoretical rather than evidence-based, as the New York Times reports:
Five states, including the Republican bastion of Utah, now conduct all elections almost entirely by mail. They report very little fraud. The state is among the six states with the highest percentage of mail-in votes in the last election in 2018, all of which had Republican state election supervisors at the time, according to David J. Becker, the director of the Center for Election Innovation and Reform.
Colorado, which has 3.5 million registered voters, has been a vote-by-mail state since 2014.
“There’s just very little evidence that there is more than a handful of fraudulent (vote-by-mail) cases across the country in a given election cycle,” said Judd Choate, the director of elections in the Colorado Department of State.
Republicans like to talk about “ballot harvesting” — the practice allowed in a few states, notably California, of letting political or advocacy groups collect signed and sealed mail ballots for delivery to election officials — as a source of potential fraud. But the only actual case anyone can cite involves a Republican congressional campaign in North Carolina, a state where it is not allowed. As with other alleged avenues for imagined fraud in voting by mail, legitimate concerns can easily be addressed by more serious penalties for tampering with mail ballots (it’s already a felony in most states, including California), and more vigilant policing of signature requirements. But some proposed anti-fraud “reforms” like signature witnessing requirements, which is as hazardous as voting in person during a pandemic, defeat the whole purpose of remote voting.
The fact that Trump cast an absentee ballot himself in 2018, and wants to preserve the option for his kind of “real Americans,” should be enough for anyone fair-minded to insist on extending that opportunity to all registered voters at least during the duration of the pandemic. But even those who admire this president probably wouldn’t claim fair-mindedness is one of his preeminent qualities. He’s all about winning by hook or by crook, which is why Democrats in Congress and in the states are going to have to go to the mats and utilize whatever leverage they have in order to expand voting by mail. It’s a very, very big deal.