Democratic voters are more likely to vote by mail this fall than Republican voters — and that just might deliver Donald Trump a second term.
For months now, the logistics of mail-in voting have been a focal point for blue America’s electoral anxieties. And for good reason: If November’s election results resemble today’s polling averages, Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. Which means that Trump either needs to make substantial gains with his present detractors (something he has struggled to do throughout his presidency) or else hope the actual electorate differs from the one pollsters’ models presume. Given that pollsters have no historical precedents to draw on when calculating the impact of a pandemic on turnout patterns, that second hypothetical offers the president some solace.
But Trump isn’t just passively hoping logistical hiccups will break in his favor. Rather, he has repeatedly signaled that he intends to exploit discrepancies in partisan voting methods to secure his reelection. Recent polling suggests that about 20 percent of Republicans intend to vote by mail compared with 40 percent of Democrats. Since many swing states do not begin processing mail-in ballots until November 3, much of the postal vote won’t be counted on Election Night. For these reasons, there’s a good chance Trump will be leading in enough states for an Electoral College majority when Americans tune in to watch the election returns. Anticipating this development, the president has argued that Americans “Must know Election results on the night of the Election,” not days later, while simultaneously arguing that mail-in ballots are rife with fraud. Trump’s handpicked head of federal law enforcement, Bill Barr, has echoed these sentiments. The White House’s plain intention is to persuade the public to see a hypothetical post–Election Night deterioration in Trump’s lead as evidence of foul play (Republicans tried out a similar gambit in the wake of the 2018 midterms). Republicans would then leverage this popular misconception to aid legal challenges to the counting of various mail-in ballots in close battleground states.
Separately, slowdowns in mail delivery apparently engineered by GOP donor turned postmaster general Louis DeJoy have threatened to disenfranchise mail-in voters by causing their ballots to arrive after state deadlines. Thanks to congressional scrutiny and judicial action, these issues appear to have been resolved.
And yet: Democrats’ greater penchant for voting by mail could hurt the party even if the Postal Service executes its duties perfectly and Trump’s disenfranchisement efforts fail as badly as his casinos.
Recent developments in North Carolina’s early vote spotlight this reality. As FiveThirtyEight’s Kaleigh Rogers reports:
In North Carolina, absentee ballots have already been sent back and the state has been updating statistics on those ballots daily. As of September 17, Black voters’ ballots are being rejected at more than four times the rate of white voters, according to the state’s numbers.  Black voters have mailed in 13,747 ballots, with 642 rejected, or 4.7 percent. White voters have cast 60,954 mail-in ballots, with 681 — or 1.1 percent — rejected …
The vast majority of these ballots were rejected because voters made a mistake or failed to fill out the witness information,  according to state records … Part of this gap could be due to the fact that many Black voters and voters of color casting mail ballots are doing so for the first time, and first time vote-by-mail voters tend to make more mistakes because they’re less familiar with the requirements. That’s true in North Carolina, too. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina, compared historical voter records in the state and found that most voters who had their ballot rejected so far voted in person in 2016.
“We’re seeing already a lack of familiarity with the process, whether it’s signing the ballot or having the witness information completed,” Bitzer said. “There tends to be a greater number from voters who were previously in-person voters. If you look at the numbers [from Sept. 14], the ballots denied due to incomplete witness information, 55 percent of those voters had voted in person in 2016.”
For Democrats, the problem extends beyond racial disparities in ballot rejection. Put simply, under existing election laws, it’s a lot easier to screw up a mail-in ballot than an in-person one. In 2016, roughly one percent of that year’s 33.2 million mail ballots were rejected; for in-person votes, the rejection rate was approximately 0.66 percent.
Given that 2020 will see an unprecedented number of first-time mail-in voters, it’s quite plausible that this year’s rejection rate will be higher. Historically, as one would expect, first-time voters make errors on their mail-in ballots at a higher than average rate. Thus, to the extent that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote by mail, they will also be more likely to have their votes thrown out — even in the absence of any corruption in election administration. Further, as FiveThirtyEight’s report indicates, among the mail-in-voting population, demographic groups that lean Democratic (such as nonwhite and younger voters) make errors on their ballots at higher rates than do Republican-leaning constituencies. In a close election, these sorts of partisan disparities could cost Biden enough votes to swing the election to Trump.
All of this said, one can still tell a plausible story about how Democratic voters’ affinity for mail-in ballots will nevertheless redound to the party’s benefit.
Democrats are likely to have more ballots rejected because of their affinity for mailing them in, but Republicans may lose even more votes to a drop in turnout wrought by Trump’s demonization of voting by mail. The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips explains:
[E]lection officials warn that there could be long lines as they try to space people six feet apart. The search is on for bigger venues — the National Basketball Association has offered up arenas, and vote-by-mail advocates are in talks with major concert halls to do the same.
But that won’t be the case in every community. Many are closing some regular in-person polling places, meaning there’s a risk people could show up at the wrong place to vote.
In addition, if election officials assume that a significant portion of voters will choose the by-mail option, they may not staff these polling places well enough to handle big groups of voters showing up to cast ballots. Or they may not be able to. Many jurisdictions are worried about a shortage of poll workers to keep the process moving smoothly.
Thus, it’s conceivable that relying on in-person votes will cost Republicans more ballots (as a result of their supporters refusing to wait in exceptionally long Election Day lines) than relying on voting by mail will cost Democrats (as a result of their supporters getting their ballots rejected).
But since the GOP’s support is concentrated in low-density areas — which tend to have more electoral resources per person than high-density ones — it’s possible the burdens of voting in person during a pandemic will fall overwhelmingly on Democratic voters in urban centers.
So what are we to take away from this morass of hypotheticals?
For individual voters who want to ensure their ballots are counted — without having to wait in line for hours or contravene social-distancing protocols — the best bet may be to vote early in person. All but nine states allow for early voting, and lines are liable to be shorter before November 3 than on it. For horse-race election enthusiasts, meanwhile, the takeaway may simply be that the pandemic’s impact on voting logistics in general, and the partisan disparity in voting by mail in particular, represents a source of uncertainty that could produce a significant polling error. That error could plausibly understate the final vote share of either candidate. But in a context in which Biden leads the polls comfortably, Trump will take (and/or engineer) all the logistical uncertainty he can get.