On Thursday, when Donald Trump casually suggested on Twitter that the November election be delayed because “Universal Mail-In Voting” would make it “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he was either setting the stage to contest the outcome or to explain away his impending defeat, or both. As the President should know by now, in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic is dangerous, especially for older Americans and those with underlying health conditions. Yet he and his chorus of enablers have made a habit of trash-talking voting by mail, claiming, erroneously, that it promotes fraud. It’s no accident that Trump’s tweet specifically assailed “Universal Mail-In Voting,” since the word “universal” is triggering for anyone who is afraid of the will of the people.
So far, only five states have nearly universal mail-in balloting. For most of them, it took years of legislative wrangling before it was adopted, and years of preparation before it was deployed. Additionally, thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have no-excuse absentee balloting (meaning that anyone can request an absentee ballot for any reason). And every state has the infrastructure to enable military and overseas voters to cast ballots from afar. (Inexplicably, according to Thursday’s tweet, Trump believes that absentee ballots are good and mail-in ballots are bad, even though they are the same thing.) All told, nearly eighty per cent of the electorate would be able to vote by mail in November.
Past primaries have offered a preview of the problems that can arise when significant numbers of voters choose this option. (Hint: the issue isn’t voter fraud.) Take California, a blue state, where over four million people voted by mail in February of 2008. The deluge was so great that election officials were still counting ballots weeks after the election. (One unexpected wrinkle: they had to iron thousands of ballots that had gotten crumpled in the mail, before they could feed them into the tabulator.) In New Jersey, another blue state, some voters found their ballots returned to them (and thus not counted) because the Postal Service scanned the wrong addresses; other citizens received hastily assembled ballots with the wrong slate of candidates. In New York City, where more than four hundred thousand ballots were cast by mail in the June primary, election officials do not expect to have a final vote tally for some jurisdictions until August. A hundred thousand have already been invalidated, some because they arrived too late, others because they weren’t signed or had a signature that didn’t match the signature on file.
These are some of the typical, non-malicious, ways that voters may find themselves disenfranchised. When there is an exponential increase in the number of absentee ballots, many of which will be cast by people likely to make mistakes because they’re unfamiliar with the process, the number of rejections will rise, too. So will the number of lawsuits challenging the results.
But voting by mail can also be used as a tool for voter suppression. In 2016, for example, mailed ballots cast by Black and Latinos in Florida were rejected more than two and half times as often as those cast by white voters. In states with intentionally restrictive “exact match” voter-registration requirements, signature rejections are an easy way to cull legitimate voters.
A deluge of absentee-ballot requests may, paradoxically, put pressure on traditional polling places. In Georgia—not yet a blue state—officials were unable to process the backlog of absentee-ballot requests in time for the primary in June. As a consequence, many voters ended up voting in person, but the number of available sites was diminished, due to both the virus and state-sanctioned voter suppression. (Sixteen thousand voters were assigned to a single polling location in Atlanta.)
Even in the best of circumstances, voting by mail requires a functional postal service. Trump’s effort to defund and decimate the U.S. Postal Service is a blunt instrument of disenfranchisement. Can it simply be a coincidence that the President replaced a Postmaster General committed to facilitating voting by mail with a crony named Louis DeJoy who, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, has instructed postal carriers to slow down deliveries. As my colleague Steve Coll wrote this week, in states like Michigan, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, where ballots that are not received by Election Day are automatically tossed out, the directive could be especially crushing.
The quick pivot to voting by mail will be expensive, and it’s not clear where that money will come from. One estimate by the Brennan Center for Justice puts the price tag at upward of a billion dollars for postage, printing, drop boxes, processing, ballot tracking, and other security measures. The most recent coronavirus stimulus package proposed by Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans allocates zero dollars to shoring up the November election. In contrast, a House bill would send nearly four billion dollars to the states, not only to assist with absentee balloting but to insure the safety of polling places, poll workers, and voters. Unfortunately, it is aspirational.
A number of nonprofits are attempting to step into the breach. An alliance of youth-empowerment organizations, election-protection groups, and corporations have come together to create Power the Polls, in order to train and dispatch a new generation of poll workers. Other groups have been mounting campaigns to help people negotiate the sometimes complicated process of getting an absentee ballot, a procedure that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has seen many county clerks’ offices closed. One organization has been perfecting a way to insure that ballot signatures and voter-registration signatures match. Still, without a significant infusion of money, most jurisdictions will be left to shoulder the burdens of running elections on their own during the pandemic.
This is by design. Even before Thursday’s tweet, Trump was threatening to cut off funding for states that expanded absentee voting. Yet even the Republican leadership, which has spent the past three and a half years making sure that the states will not have sufficient funds to secure our elections, found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to face Trump’s suggestion to delay the election. Their responses, though, could not be matched by this simple rebuke levelled by the seventeen-term Democratic congressman John Lewis, who died on July 17th. “Voting and participating in the democratic process are key,” he wrote in a valedictory essay, which was published on Thursday and timed to coincide with his funeral. “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”