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The 2020 Elections: Is America Ready to Vote by Mail?

The pandemic has raised concerns about keeping this year’s voting process healthy and safe. Allowing voters to send in their ballots by mail could be the answer, but it will be costly and some worry about potential fraud.

The 2020 general election was never going to be calm, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought worst-case scenarios out of the shadows and into the forefront of planning. That means secretaries of state, election officials, legislators, lawyers, voters rights groups and other stakeholders are gathering strategies and resources to safeguard both public health and democracy.

“It’s a given that the election in November will be different than ones we've held in the past,” said Wendy Underhill, director of the Elections and Redistricting program for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “States can scale up their existing processes, or they can adopt new processes with the expectation of more mail-in ballots and fewer in-person voters.”

“We've got to reduce the number of people who have to show up in person to vote, and the only way to do that is vote by mail,” said Chad Dunn, director of litigation for the UCLA Voting Rights Project and a co-author of its election policy recommendations. “We’ve got to flatten the curve.” 

Favorable Views on Mail Option

All states have some form of voting by mail, such as absentee ballots. Polls of voters from both parties show majority support for giving every voter the option of no-excuse mail voting, and a recent Reuters poll found that 72 percent of Americans want this. 

“As election officials, we shouldn't ignore the message that voters are sending,” said Neal Kelley, the registrar of voters for Orange County, Calif., the country’s fifth-largest voting jurisdiction. “This country has been using widespread absentee voting since the Civil War.”

Orange County’s March primary followed procedures outlined in California’s 2016 Voter’s Choice Act. These included mailing a ballot to every voter, 11 days of in-person voting at any location in the county and multiple options for returning ballots, including prepaid envelopes and ballot boxes. Overall, 82 percent of those who participated in the election voted by mail.

“Envelope and instruction designs are key,” said Kelley. “Plain language provides confidence to voters. More importantly, we put barcodes on outbound and inbound envelopes. This allows for full service tracking of the ballot, from outbound mail, full circle back to our office, and then adjudication.”  

Utah also has had success with mail-in voting. “We've had a very organic process since 2012, with more counties deciding to go vote to vote by mail,” said Justin Lee, the state’s director of elections. “We have 90 percent of our voters casting their ballot by mail now, and turnout is up.”

“The best time to have decided to do this was two years ago,” he added. “The second-best time to decide is now.”

A Simple Solution, with Complications

Expanding vote-by-mail is not an easy process. It means more printing, more postage, more storage space for returned ballots, more ballots to verify and count, more people, more equipment, more Web support and more money to make all of these things possible. Citizens who mail votes can practice social distancing, but workers who handle ballots need safeguards. 

“It's not like you can just say, ‘Let's go vote-by-mail tomorrow’,” said Underhill. “You’ve got to make a lot of sub-choices along the way.”

To reduce the possibility of contagion, senior citizen poll workers may have to be replaced by workers less susceptible to the virus. Replacements must be recruited in the numbers required for revised practices at polling places and they may need to be trained through distance-learning technologies.

Registering voters in person will be restricted, if not impossible. “Expanding online registration is another piece of it,” said Max Feldman, counsel in the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “That means systems that are going to be able to process all the registrations that come in, even if government offices are shut down in response to the crisis.”

These factors account, in part, for the $2 billion in additional funding that the Brennan Center says is needed to deliver the November election safely. A recent federal stimulus bill includes $400 million for election security, but grants from it require a 20 percent match that some states can’t meet. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons and Ron Wyden have called for the next stimulus bill to “include sufficient funding and direction to states to expand vote by mail, early voting and online voter registration.” Voter's rights groups have recently called for $4 billion to make this possible.

Uncertainty about funding brings the risk of delays. “Time is wasting,” said Dunn. “The scanners that have to be purchased, the printing that needs to be done, the staff that have to be located and trained, the standards that have to be put into place — all these things have got to start happening right now.”

A big challenge is the bad addresses that can hinder efforts to vote by mail and cost money to fix. To address the problem, 31 states are members of the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center, which at minimum, allows members to share their motor vehicle registration and central voter databases.

“Those two databases are required,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Other databases can be shared at the state's option. Then those are combined with federal databases like federal change of address, death records and other things like that to ensure that the information that a state has is the most accurate and up to date.”

Five states already mail ballots to every eligible voter, and several include all-mail voting as an option. <i>Source: National Conference of State Legislatures.
If ballots do reach voters and many more mail-in ballots are returned, observed Underhill, “you can't open them all on Election Day and be able to provide results in what Americans have come to think of as an appropriate time. States could change the law from ‘open on Election Day’ to ‘can begin to be processed but not counted’ one week, two weeks, prior to Election Day.”

The Fraud Question

Georgia state House Speaker David Ralston has said that his state’s plan to mail a ballot to every voter will be “devastating” to conservatives, echoing claims by other politicians. Election officials see things differently. “We have seen nothing here in Utah that shows one party has benefited over another,” said Lee. “It's working for both parties.”

His experience is reflected in a new study from Stanford researchers. They looked at three states that introduced vote-by-mail programs gradually, by county, between 1996 and 2018, and found that no party benefited, though an increase in turnout was observed.

The Brennan Center notes that vote-by-mail pioneer Oregon has seen about a dozen cases of actual fraud from 100 million mailed ballots, a rate of .0012 percent. “We compare signatures to the signatures we have in our database for every single ballot,” Lee said. “Honestly, the bigger concern has been that signatures are sometimes not counted because someone had a broken arm or just wrote a messy signature.”

Guidelines for signature verification and other election security measures are readily available, including resources compiled by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. 

Election fraud in any form is virtually nonexistent in America. An investigation of this question involving 1,000 interviews, thousands of documents, and analysis of 12 years of election fraud complaints found the rate of such events was “infinitesimal.”

In fact, absentee voting brings a major security benefit. “One of the positive aspects of vote-by-mail ballots is that they are human readable paper ballots, providing a reliable method for critical post-election audits,” said Kelley. 

Despite the renewed interest in voting by mail, in-person voting remains both vital and popular. “Expanding vote by mail options is certainly critical,” said Wilmot of Common Cause. “But getting rid of in-person voting is not something that the American public supports, nor is it an appropriate response.”

For voting by mail to succeed, “the ballot has to get to you, and that's not a done deal for many segments of our population, particularly Native populations, low-income, high-transient populations,” she said. “There has to be a backup process.”  

Expanding same-day registration will help voters who are at risk of being disenfranchised. That means exact rules regarding identification requirements, communicated clearly to the public and poll workers alike. Polling stations can facilitate distancing through smart design, sufficient numbers, extended voting periods and the willingness to serve voters from any precinct. Voters who have completed but not mailed their ballots can drop them off at polling stations and avoid lines. Curbside voting has already been implemented in several states, and has been advocated by federal, local and state officials.

Not all voters will use their mail-in ballots. “It took Washington state five years to completely move from polling places to all vote by mail, and before that we had a 10-year ramp-up of permitted atmosphere voting,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman noted in a press call organized by Senator Klobuchar. “Overall, it was a 15-year transition from polls to mail,” she said. “There really isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for the 2020 election.”

Educating Voters

Whatever election officials decide to do, “It's critical that states are transparent about what they're doing and that they're transparent about it in advance so that there's no question about what the rules are going to be in the elections,” said the Brennan Center’s Feldman.

Among the center’s recommendations, materials will need to be provided in languages other than English, as required under the Voting Rights Act. 

Communications plans must include proactive and reactive strategies to address misinformation spread via social media or other channels that can misdirect voters, discourage them from participating, or cast doubt on the validity of results.

Voters and media outlets need to know that counting will take longer than usual. “Everybody would prefer accurate results to fast results,” said NCSL’s Underwood. “When it's framed that way, everyone gets on board.”

Cautious Optimism

Paul Pate, the Iowa Secretary of State, is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, which is tracking efforts by election officials to deal with issues related to COVID-19. He said it’s important that election officials assure voters they can trust the system that’s in place “That's not always easy to do when you've got people who are saying the sky is falling.”

“We’ve got a lot of challenges, but the people who run elections have had to deal with hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophes during an election phase,” he said. “They are good risk managers.”

If anybody can pull this off, election officials can. “They are the salt of the earth, the most practical people ever born,” said Underhill. “Only people who have a can-do, meet-the-deadline kind of personality stay in the field.”

The present patchwork of state election policies will need to alter significantly for vote-by-mail to be implemented consistently across the country. Source: Brennan Center for Justice

Note: Since this article first appeared, the Brennan Center published additional details about state voting and registration policies, which you can find here.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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