Mail-In Voting: Vice or Virtue?

The 2020 presidential election kicked off predictably, but we’ve now found ourselves in an unforeseen and unprecedented set of circumstances. Most extraordinarily, a national election seems to be quite low in our concerns at the moment – a pandemic forced humanity into a state of lockdown for over twelve weeks, killing a hundred thousand Americans, followed by mass demonstrations against police brutality in cities around the world. Throw some murder hornets in the mix, and you’ve got the most chaotic three months in recent history. A logistical concern has emerged from the kerfuffle, however: if we’re supposed to stay home, what happens when November comes around and the disease is still raging on? How are we supposed to vote if we can’t leave our houses? Holding a widespread physical election like any other year could prove disastrous on the public health front, possibly creating a cesspool at voting stations and putting personnel at risk of contracting the virus. Mail-in voting is one proposed fix, but like most other things in this partisan environment, it’s become a political issue divided down the party line. Going forward, voting by mail will likely be one of the defining debates of this election cycle – one that will undoubtedly influence the outcome of the contest, for better or for worse.

Of course, there’s a chance that months from now this will be a non-issue. By some scientific metrics, the coronavirus is largely on its way out – at least, for now. In most states, deaths are steadily declining. However, don’t don your ‘Free Hugs’ t-shirt just yet. The possibility of a second wave of the disease is at the forefront of public health officials’ minds, one which would put physical voting in jeopardy. To accommodate for this prospect, the government will have to be equipped to provide safe voting measures for the electorate later this year. The means through which we achieve that end, however, have come into question. 

Democrats have come to support adopting a mail-based voting model for November, while some Republicans are more skeptical. According to a recent Politico poll, about sixty percent of Americans support a law requiring the provision of absentee ballots to voters for all elections taking place during the pandemic. In proposed coronavirus relief strategies, Congressional Democrats have offered the idea of “no-excuse” mail-in voting, meaning that any voter can request a ballot before election day regardless of rationale. However, many high-profile members of the GOP have reservations about voting by mail, most of which concern election security. The President has expressed his disapproval for widespread absentee voting, referring to it as “corrupt” and a vehicle for voter fraud across the nation. His claims raised some eyebrows, however, as Trump himself has voted by mail. Republicans have not reached a general consensus on the issue beyond the President’s words, leaving the future of mail-in voting in question. 

Contrary to what the current situation suggests, absentee voting is already somewhat common in our elections. It’s not a revolutionary idea – about a fifth of voters submitted their decisions via mail in 2016. In two-thirds of states, you don’t even need an excuse such as illness or incapacitation to request a mail-in ballot. Five states have a universal absentee voting system, sending a ballot by mail to every registered voter without need for requests. As long as you stick to a dictated voting schedule – requesting, mailing, etc. – your vote should be counted. For the most part, the system seems to work, but it’s not without its downfalls. Some ballots are occasionally lost in the mix, either not arriving upon request, not being received after mailing, or being rejected due to inconsistencies or errors. Such issues have led certain Republicans to cast doubt on absentee voting, even going so far as to suggest it’s fraudulent. 

Granted, the massive mail model proposed by Democrats would be unprecedented and bound to meet some obstacles in determining an accurate tally of the electorate. However, based on numerous studies, there appears to be no notable advantage to either party caused by absentee voting in the past. In fact, there’s little evidence to suggest that a large-scale election conducted via absentee ballots would open the door for widespread voter fraud. The current absentee ballot counting process has been secure enough to avoid warranting any significant reform in the past, and fraud can carry hefty criminal penalties. On a stage as enormous as the entire United States, however, the system could take new form and new problems could arise. Regardless, some say, it’s preferable to the peril of physical voting in the era of coronavirus. If anything, mail-in ballots would make voting more convenient – over half of eligible voters stayed home in 2016, some presumably due to inconvenience. Tight work schedules or lack of access to polling stations can drive some citizens to sit out. Mail-in voting, Democrats argue, is the answer; with the pandemic, unwillingness to cast ballots in person is shared by millions, and the stakes are higher than ever. Yet, we must take caution before jumping to implement an absentee voting program of this scale. Inconsistencies and fraud, if they occur, could have major repercussions for this election. It could be a logistical nightmare causing delays and inaccuracies; it could also be godsend for the communities this virus has hit the hardest. Whatever it is, the nation’s voters will navigate these uncharted waters together – because during this chaotic year, we’re all in the same boat.

Originally published in the Silent Noise in June of 2020.

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