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Should More States Adopt Universal Vote-by-Mail?

Voting by mail has seen increased public debate since the COVID 19 (coronavirus) pandemic created new concerns about voting lines and crowded polls leading up to the 2020 election. As with so many topics, opinions tend to split along political lines. Democratic politicians often favor the mail in option, and Republican politicians, generally, seem against it.  But what are the pros and cons, and should more states adopt universal vote-by-mail?

Before the list, though, a bit of background.

Vote-by-mail can be broken into three main categories.  The first is “universal” vote-by-mail in which all registered voters atomically receive a mail-in ballot.  Currently, there are just five states with this option as their default: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.  More common is the “no-excuse” vote-by-mail option which is available in 29 states.  In this system, mail-in ballots must be requested, but they are provided to all registered voters who ask.  Another 16 states offer “excuse-only” vote by mail, which requires voters to provide an “acceptable” reason for needing the mail-in ballot.  Absentee voting, which is different that university vote-by-mail, falls into either the “no-excuse” or “excuse-only” categories of mail-in voting.  In all cases, vote-by-mail is in addition to in-person voting.  It does not replace it.

Pros of Vote-by-Mail

Safety and Security

There is simply no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud.  That’s true in general and with vote-by-mail specifically.  It is not uncommon to hear wild speculation about forged ballots, ineligible voters or people voting multiple times, but there is no research, no data, no historical precedent to legitimize this concern. The Bipartisan Policy Center identifies the idea that main-in ballots are more susceptible to voter fraud as one of the most common myths on this topic. 

The lack of evidence of voter fraud is not because the method is new or untested.  According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, in 2016, almost 1 in 4 voters used mail-in voting.  

The Heritage Foundation, a noted conservative organization that states, in part, a mission “to formulate and promote conservative public policies” has a useful election fraud research tool on its website.  This tool shows 62 cases of election fraud from 2016, including the primaries, broken down by state and type of fraud.  That is 62 cases out of more than 140 million votes in the federal election.  It is not an exaggeration to say that is almost 0%.

Increased equity

An individual’s right to vote is at the heart of American principles and ideals.  It is a great equalizer of democracy that our individual votes carry the same weight.  The same cannot be said, however, of our individual access to casting that vote.  A 2019 study used anonymous smartphone data coupled with location data of polling places across the U.S.  Results showed that “Relative to entirely-white neighborhoods, residents of entirely-black neighborhoods waited 29% longer to vote and were 74% more likely to spend more than 30 minutes at their polling place.” 

A universal vote-by-mail policy can mitigate the trend of closing polling places in predominantly black communities by providing an alternative to long lines.  That does not mean that it is the solution for everyone, though.  Many Native Americans, for example, live on reservations that include addresses not recognized by the U.S. Postal Service.  So while we can’t say that vote-by-mail ensures equity, there is reason to believe in increases equity.

Time to study the ballot

Mail-in ballots afford voters more time to study the ballot and consider the issues.  Without the pressure of a line of people waiting to enter the voting booth, you can spend as much time as you need evaluating candidates and propositions.  Coupled with the voter blue book or internet access, you can even spend time researching as you vote to make the most informed decision possible.  This can be particularly valuable with propositions that often times feature challenging language.

Financial savings

Initial costs for states that currently have limited capacity for tabulating mail-in ballots could be significant.  However, there is reason to believe that states would realize a long-term savings from the investment.  A 2016 Pew Research study looked at voting costs in Colorado, one of the five states with a universal vote-by-mail system.  It found costs decreased  in five  election administration categories by an average of 40%, with an average cost-per-vote of $9.56 in 2014 compared to almost $16 in 2008.

 Voter turnout

The impact of vote-by-mail on voter turnout is actually quite difficult to measure because of how many variables contribute to the number of people who vote in a given election.  There is certainly evidence to suggest, though, that voting by mail has a positive overall impact.  The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) cites reports that show single digit percentage increases  for presidential elections and higher numbers for state and local races.

Equal benefit for Democrats and Republicans

Does vote-by-mail favor Democrats and harm Republicans? A popular narrative in the media is that expanded vote-by-mail will disproportionately help Democratic candidates.  There is evidence to indicate, though, that expanded mail-in voting is more likely to be politically neutral.  A 2020 study from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) concludes that universal vote-by-mail has an equal impact on both party’s percentage of voter turnout and vote share.

It is also worth noting that while Democrat and Republican politicians largely disagree on this issue, there is much greater agreement among the general public.  An April 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll “found that 72% of all U.S. adults, including 79% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans, supported a requirement for mail-in ballots…”

Cons of Vote-by-Mail

Slower vote counts

Processing mail ballots is not a fast process.  There are signatures to cross-check, envelopes to open, and eligibility to confirm.  Some states allow election officials to begin counting mail-in ballots days well in advance of election day, but not all states give themselves that option. This can greatly reduce the ability to provide same-day election results on Election Day.  More concerning, though, is that voter confidence is often eroded as results take longer to process.

Eroded civic experience

This disadvantage to mail-in voting is perhaps less tangible than other considerations, but it is still real.  Voting has historically been a community activity with polling places located at schools, rec centers, and other places central to community identity.  Precinct volunteers represent a cross-section of community members, and modest lines provide an opportunity for some social interaction.  For an activity that relies greatly on a sense of civic pride and duty, anything that erodes that experience is a drawback.

Stickers

Not to be flippant, but people like their “I voted” stickers.  In some locations, the sticker is veritable work of art.  It is actually another element of the civic experience.  Fortunately, some states – Colorado is one – include the “I Voted” sticker with the mail-in ballot.  But if you live in a state that doesn’t, there is always the option to buy one.

Conclusion

Universal vote-by-mail does not solve access issues for everyone, and it is not without some legitimate concerns.  Unfounded claims of voter fraud, and the misguided view that voting by mail favors one political party over another, though, are not problems supported by facts.  In this case, the pros clearly outweigh the cons, but with an important caveat: universal vote-by-mail must complement in-person voting, just as it does in the five states that currently allow it.  It is not a replacement.

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