There is no doubt that absentee ballots have their place in helping the sick, physically disabled, and those who, for any legitimate reason, are not able to vote on Election Day. However, given the doubt that universal mail-in voting casts on our election, and its potential to cause widespread disenfranchisement, this election should be conducted as normally as possible. With proper precautions, in person voting is extremely safe and more secure – so why jeopardize the fairness and honesty of this election by sending a mail-in ballot to everyone?
The integrity of our elections is not a partisan issue. Most voters are concerned about voter fraud, with 80 percent of surveyed registered voters agreeing that people who vote by mail should comply with ID requirements. The impartiality of our elections depends on our policymakers carefully weighing the risks of voting normally with the consequences associated with mail-in voting before hastily making decisions that infringe on citizens’ right to vote.
Voting in person carries no more risk than going to a grocery store, especially when proper precautions are taken. Zeke Emanuel, former Obama-administration health advisor, told The Atlantic that, “It’s like grocery shopping,” and Dr. Anthony Fauci concurred that “there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to [vote in-person.]” The one-time casting of an in-person vote seems far less risky than repeated visits to grocery stores, and poll workers will follow guidelines to keep voters safe during that one-time exposure. On June 22, the CDC released detailed guidelines that prepare poll workers to protect voters’ health. The precautions are extensive: modifying layouts, securing larger polling locations, and crowd management, as well as disinfecting regularly and wearing masks, are all recommended, along with other guidelines. Alternative methods such as absentee voting, early voting, and outdoor/curbside voting will help to reduce crowds even further.
Evidence from early primary elections this year also suggests that in-person voting poses little risk to most people. Wisconsin held their primaries in March, and the CDC concluded that, “No clear increase in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths was observed after the election.” The Wisconsin primary showed a fifteenfold increase in absentee ballots, comprising 68 percent of all votes, and early voting increased to 12 percent of all votes, up from 5 percent the year before. The remaining votes were cast at five polling places, sharply reduced from 181 polling places in the previous election. Unfortunately, cutting 97 percent of in-person polling places likely led to more exposure, and yet still – there were no clear increases in cases.
Universal mail-in voting has been falsely equated with absentee ballots in most public debate on the subject, yet the two could not be more different in procedure and implementation. Traditional absentee ballots require that a voter who is unable to vote on Election Day request an absentee application, which is sent to the state for approval. Assuming the application is approved, the state sends out a ballot, then the voter returns the ballot with their vote. Most of the time, acceptable excuses for standard absentee voting are being out-of-state and having medical conditions.
In states with “no-excuse,” absentee voting, the voter does not have to specify the reason they cannot make it to the polls. Alaska is one of such states. Some states send out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, but any absentee system requires the voter to affirmatively send the request before the state provides an absentee ballot. Universal mail-in voting, in contrast, would automatically send out ballots to every registered voter. This means that voters no longer need to request a ballot to receive one – which has obvious consequences.
The truth is that universal mail-in voting is subject to potential vulnerabilities that are unlikely to be ironed out before the November election. Mail-in ballots are cast without the supervision of poll workers, which subjects voters to the possibility of intimidation and fraud in their own homes – electioneering laws only cover locations near polling places. In 27 states, “vote harvesting,” is allowed, where voters can designate vote harvesters to return their absentee ballots for them, which has concerning implications for privacy and transparency. Further, ballots cast by mail are often disqualified due to signature discrepancies and other problems that could be resolved by having the assistance of poll workers. In New York City’s primary, 21 percent of ballots were disqualified – and that’s after a month of counting.
Another problem with universal mail-in voting is that counties and other local governments rarely update or maintain voter rolls, meaning that inactive voters who have moved, died, or were never eligible to receive ballots will have one sent. About 10 percent of voters move every year, and moves spurred by the coronavirus pandemic have the potential to exacerbate this problem with mail-in voting. Automatic mail-in ballots to these voters will be sent to the wrong address, and the only way to ensure ballots are not unaccounted for is to require that voters request a ballot through the absentee system.
Incidents of voter fraud are well-documented with mail-in ballots and, when it occurs, are often enough to sway the outcome of those elections. Absentee ballots are the most vulnerable to being stolen, altered, or forged, and are susceptible to electioneering attempts, as discussed previously. Electioneering laws cover attempts to influence voters at polling places, but because these laws rarely prohibit electioneering in other places, voters placing absentee votes are more vulnerable to pressure. A Wall Street Journal article concisely notes that according to absentee rolls, impossibly large numbers of people can live at the same address: “In 2016, 83 registered voters in San Pedro, Calif., received absentee ballots at the same small two-bedroom apartment.” The article also notes that in the 2017 Dallas City Council election, 700 fraudulent ballots signed by the same witness cast the outcome of two council races into doubt and led to criminal convictions – since those 700 ballots were much larger than the vote differential. In the May 12 municipal elections in Patterson, New Jersey, 19 percent of the total ballots were rejected by the board of elections, while some residents report that they never received their ballots but were recorded as having voted.
One could argue that these incidents are isolated and local – and thus, our country couldn’t experience the same disenfranchisement, doubt, and fraud in a national election. However, the Heritage Foundation maintains a database of proven voter fraud incidents, which includes more than 1,000 incidents in the United States alone. And given that developed nations generally ban mail-in voting for in-country voters due to fraud, should we take that gamble? The vote differential in the 2016 presidential election was just over 2 percent of the popular vote total; irregularities could be much less than observed in Patterson, New Jersey, and still cast the outcome of the presidential election into doubt.
Alaska is not immune to mistakes, either. The Alaska Division of Elections recently sent absentee ballots with the wrong Democratic nominee listed for Anchorage’s House District 28 to 135 Alaska residents living overseas. The Heritage Foundation’s database also lists three election fraud cases in Alaska from 2005 to 2013, two of which were ineligible voting fraud. Juneau voted to hold their local October 9 election entirely by mail and dropped the witness signature requirement, which only makes it easier for fraud and electioneering to occur. As much as we would like to think that Alaska is insulated from the incentives for fraud and simple human error that inevitably occur, incidents like these would only become more frequent under a universal mail-in voting system.
Even if voter fraud, disenfranchisement, and unaccounted ballots were not concerning, it is highly unlikely that the logistics of mail-in voting would be ironed out before the election. Frankly, the United States Postal Service does not have the capacity to deliver and return ballots on the scale that universal mail-in voting requires, at least not in the 40 days remaining before the election. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that in the last four elections, 2.7 million mail-in ballots were misdelivered and 1.3 million were rejected by election officials. Ballots that were unaccounted for, which are ballots that were not returned for any reason, comprised 28 million ballots. Assuming that election turnout is like that of the 2016 election, where 130 million people voted, the USPS would need to absorb 260 million pieces of mail, for delivery and return.
The infrastructure to count mail-in ballots on this scale simply does not yet exist, and delays are likely to result, from both volume and the fact that ballots require time to return and process. The New York City primary required more than a month to count ballots while still discarding 21 percent of the votes. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court recently decided that absentee ballots can arrive three days after Election Day, with no postmark needed, and still be counted, which lengthens the timeline even further. Electors must be decided by December 14, and with state laws varying dramatically, it is unlikely that the full slate of electors would be selected in time to cast their electoral votes.
Protecting the right to vote requires more than flooding the postal system with ballots. We need to ensure fairness and honesty by making it easy to vote and hard to cheat. Trading in-person voting for universal mail-in voting makes a gamble that the widespread risks of fraud, disenfranchisement, and damaging the integrity of this election will not occur. Why jeopardize the fairness of this election, especially when the risks of voting in person are so low?