It’s 2020, and it’s just about time to vote for the next President of the United States. There are accommodations for people with vision or mobility issues, and teams who can be requested to help voters fill out their ballots, but what about voting...by mail?
by Mitch Blatt
Voting by mail is good for those who can’t vote in-person—like people with disabilities, people with agoraphobia or most of us in the physically-distant parts of the world—but it’s not free from controversy. People are worried about things ranging from the possibility of fraud and tampering, to ballots going missing and the generally confusing system for becoming eligible to vote by mail, and more.
Voter pamphlets are available in online formats. 29 states (and D.C.) allow voting by mail without an excuse, and 11 states have expanded the eligible excuses in response to COVID-19.
THE CURRENT SYSTEM
Interesting fact: According to USA.gov, the public doesn’t directly vote for the president and vice president. They actually vote for “electors” (with a certain number of electors per state, depending on the state’s representation in Congress), and those are the people who directly vote for the president and vice president. In the current system, members of the public who want to vote first need to meet their state’s residency and voter registration requirements. In a federal, state, or local general election, you don’t have to vote for the party you’re registered with, but you may not have that choice in a presidential primary or caucus, depending on the rules in your state.
Actually voting can be done in person or by mail. Some states require mail-in voters to provide an excuse. Others will automatically mail voters an absentee ballot (or an absentee ballot request form). Acceptable excuses vary by state, but typically include being unable to get to a physical polling station because of sickness, disability or injury; being a student at an out-of-state college or university and being overseas during Election Day. This has expanded in light of the coronavirus. Specific rules can be found at a state’s election offices. Even if a person receives an absentee ballot, they can still vote in-person at a designated polling place if they want to. They just have to be aware of the rules and procedures set by their state. They can either cast their absentee ballot, or have it replaced with an in-person ballot (or a provisional ballot if they forget their absentee ballot at home). Many states have voter ID laws; about half of these will only accept photo ID, like a driver’s license or passport, but others will accept non-photo ID like a birth certificate, bank statement or social security card.
As part of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, people are able to request a Voter Assistance Team—two people from differing political parties will come to them and help with whatever they need, be it filling out the ballot or providing assistive technology so that they can vote privately and independently. These accommodations may have been targeted mainly toward people with disabilities and the elderly, but they also help other demographics, such as people with agoraphobia, single parents who don’t have time in their day to vote in-person and people under pandemic-related lockdowns.
For a deeper understanding of this issue, I spoke with Tim Scott, Director of Elections for Multnomah County, Oregon. Scott had a lot to teach me about voting accessibility. Eighteen years ago, he was a poll worker in Fairfax, Virginia. When he first walked into the clerk’s office and asked to volunteer, Scott was able to start an internship with them, doing things like data entry and outreach to poll workers. His work with them mainly consisted of clerical duties like filling precinct bags and building a database of poll workers, but just being there on Election Day and helping poll workers and voters “was all I needed to say ‘This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’” He felt that the fact the state of Virginia required an excuse if one wished to vote absentee, and had a short list of acceptable excuses, was “a barrier in itself,” regardless of whether or not the voter had a disability. Maybe someone wants to vote, but doesn’t have reliable transportation, or maybe the days the polling places are open don’t fit with their schedule.
On the topic of electronic voting, Scott notes that touchscreen-based voting equipment, being platform-dependent, may or may not work for a person depending on their disability.
Scott says, “To me, it has always felt like having a voter-centric system that was really focused on what the voter’s needs were was the best way to make sure that the election is accessible.”
Will the future system focus on the voter’s needs?
When it comes to the recent pandemic, Scott says, “[voter assistance teams are] not allowed to go into [...] places like that which have been locked down due to the risks posed
to the patients [...] and the residents of those facilities. We had to get very creative in this last election cycle. First, we worked directly with the [voters] that contacted us and said, ‘Tell us what you need. How can we help you?’”
The voter would tell the team what they’re looking for, and the team would see what options best fit their situation, such as having a trusted individual provide direct
assistance or meeting with the team under an outdoor pop-up tent.
But what if a voter isn’t able to meet with an advance team or get aid from a trusted individual? What recourse do they have? And doesn’t widespread vote-by-mail create a higher risk of voter fraud or tampering? Does it benefit one party more than another?
There are flaws with both voting by mail and voting in person at a physical polling station. Intimidation, buyouts and coercion can happen with either system, but are harder to prevent with mail-in ballots.
It’s true that mail-in ballots are filled in privately, but they require a signature on the ballot envelope, which will be matched to an official signature. Scholars agree that vote-by-mail fraud is more frequent than in-person voting, though it’s rare. State voter registration databases aren’t perfect, and errors can lead to ballots being mailed to the wrong addresses or ineligible voters.
Having a physical polling station requires people to set it up and staff it, and voters have to get in their cars, call an Uber or Lyft, or otherwise go from their homes to a separate physical location. This takes time, of which there’s only so much in a day. The inconvenience of “getting out” can dissuade people who don’t have the time to “get out
As far as the voter is concerned, having someone else deliver your ballot is a kindness, particularly when there’s a pandemic keeping everyone socially distant.
It’s theoretically possible for the ballot collector to tamper with ballots before turning them in, and this in fact happened before during a congressional election in North Carolina, but states can legislate who can return a voter’s ballot and how many ballots a single person can return.
What if ballots go missing? A non-profit firm opposed to mail-in voting (without certain restrictions) used data from the US Election Assistance Commission to argue that 28 million ballots have gone missing since 2012. However, the firm’s interpretation conflated un-returned ballots with ballots that hadn’t been filled out. Everyone in vote-by-mail states receives a ballot, but not everyone uses it. And sometimes what looks like fraud is really just a state’s voter database needing an update, which can be solved by mailing out absentee voter applications with prepaid postage. Critics say that this can be potentially confusing or discouraging to voters, but people eventually got used to having to take their shoes, belts, phones, etc. off for the TSA.
What about political leanings? Does vote-by-mail give one party an
unfair advantage over the other? A survey by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that vote-by-mail increases turnout rates, but not for any particular party. Voting by mail has a delay that voting in person doesn’t, giving voters more time to research candidates. This is a bit like asking “does absentee voting give one party an unfair advantage?” since absentee voting and mail-in voting are functionally the same thing—someone sends in their ballot despite not being at a physical polling place. There just isn’t a statistically-significant difference in voter turnout for either Republican, Democrat, or Independent parties, according to a study in the journal Science Advances. The more troubling thing is rhetoric from the Republican side that frames voting by mail as only benefitting the Democrats, which could discourage Republican voters from using it to cast their votes, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. In short, there don’t seem to be political grounds for opposition to vote-by-mail.
We’ve got electronic ballots, voter assistance teams, and more, but
adding universal vote-by-mail would help people with disabilities, single parents, people who work multiple jobs— everyone who can’t get to a polling place. With the coronavirus
and social distancing limiting how many people can be at one polling place at a time, more people fall into that category than one might think. Setting up vote-by-mail can take years and can lead to distrust if the ballots tallied in the meantime say one candidate won and this changes once the mailed-in ballots are tallied. But, particularly when there’s a pandemic we want to slow down, that seems like a relatively small price to pay.
Our voices matter every year, but in a year like 2020 where we’re dealing with protests over racial issues, wildfires and an upcoming election, our voices matter even more than usual. If we want to ensure that as many people as possible get heard, we need to take action, such as signing petitions or voting for officials who proclaim support for universal
For resources and more ways you can take action, please check out https://represent.us/vote-home-covid19/.