All-mail elections have been going on for years in some states, and from the liberal bastions of Oregon and Washington to rock-red conservative Utah, the voters who use it love it.
President Trump is not a fan, however, calling it a recipe for fraud.
He’s mounting an all-out assault in person, on Twitter and in the nation’s courts to keep states from expanding mail-in voting options during this year’s elections.
Mr. Trump said Tuesday that California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent order to expand mail-in voting would turn the country into “a joke” and could help create a “rigged system.”
“You can’t do the mail-in ballots because you’re going to have tremendous fraud,” Mr. Trump said at the White House. “And remember what I said, they’ll be grabbing [ballots] from mailboxes, they’ll even be printing them. They’ll use the same paper, the same machines, and they’ll be printing ballots illegally and they’ll be sending them in by the hundreds of thousands and nobody’s going to know the difference.”
With his name on the ballot, Mr. Trump has a deeply personal stake in the fight.
Academics with less skin in the game say some of his fears about fraud are valid, though overwrought. And they generally dismiss his suspicion that the more people vote by mail, the worse Republicans do.
Most studies show no clear partisan advantage in states that allow all or mostly-mail elections.
Five states — Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii — send ballots to every voter, though that doesn’t mean they all return them through the mail. Coloradans, for example, can drop their ballots off at designated locations as long as they’re in before 7 p.m. on Election Day.
In 2016, 73% of Coloradans dropped their ballots off in person, as did 59% of voters in Oregon and 65% in Washington, according to the Election Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Voters in the five states are thrilled with the system, according to polling by YouGov in March. Approval ranges from 77% in Oregon to 87% in Hawaii.
Phil Keisling, who was secretary of state when Oregon became the first to adopt all-mail voting in the 1990s, said he was skeptical at first but has been converted.
“I liked the traditions: The crunch of the autumn leaves, the crisp blue sky, saying hello to my neighbors, so I understand what people are not sure about,” Mr. Keisling said. “Like that piece of great Western literature, Dr. Seuss’ ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ when voters have the chance to actually try it, they realize they actually like it.”
Mr. Keisling said Oregon has not had major fraud incidents.
Thirty other states allow no-excuse-needed absentee voting, which means any voter can vote by mail. The other states require an approved excuse — though, in some, such as Virginia, the governor has said fear of coronavirus is a valid excuse, effectively turning next month’s primaries into no-excuse absentee voting.
The risk, according to the five vote-by-mail states, is that others are rushing into all-mail elections without doing the groundwork. Elections officials in those states have been fielding calls from other states, and their answer is to be aware.
Voter rolls must be kept scrupulously clean so ballots only go to current addresses for valid voters. Sometimes new equipment is needed to count votes, and signature cards need to be kept up-to-date.
MIT’s Election Lab says that while fraud is rare, it “seems to be more frequent” with mailed ballots than in-person voting.
On Tuesday, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced criminal fraud charges against a rural mail carrier accused of altering absentee ballots from Democrat to Republican.
No two states’ all-mail elections are conducted the same, nor have they yielded comparable results clearly favoring any particular party or political philosophy.
Colorado overhauled its elections system in 2013, but voter behavior did not immediately change as a result. Two-thirds of voters in the 2014 general election returned their votes in person, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts’ analysis.
By 2018, though, the state saw its highest-ever turnout for a midterm congressional election, trailing only Minnesota among the 50 states, according to a report from Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project.
Hawaii ranked last in turnout in 2018, before it adopted all-mail voting. The 2020 general election will be the first major test for the state.
Hawaii’s Office of Elections has told voters to expect a ballot packet to arrive in the mail about 18 days before the summer primary and the fall general election. Like Coloradans, they can mail it back or drop it off in person.
Hawaii relies heavily on signatures and barcodes to verify a voter’s identity, whereas first-time voters in Colorado may need to provide a copy of their identification alongside their signature to have their vote count.
The barcode appears on the envelope that contains Hawaiians’ “ballot secrecy sleeve” and the individual ballots, which are used to guard against voter fraud.
Vote-by-mail in that manner provides several disadvantages and advantages. The National Conference of State Legislatures lists “security” as a possible disadvantage because family members or others may coerce voters, away from the scrutiny of poll watchers. States deploying vote-by-mail for the upcoming elections have created websites where voters can track their ballot to ensure it is received and counted.
One advantage is the potential cost savings. The logistics of vote-by-mail saved Coloradans more than $6 in taxpayer dollars spent per vote cast by reducing costs 40% across five election-administration categories, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts’ analysis.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is a major proponent of the state’s system, tried to get Congress to add $2 billion for state election assistance in the coronavirus stimulus package. In the end, the bill included $400 million for election security, which does include expanding vote-by-mail.
“Look, America could be faced with a choice this fall of either Americans being able to vote, which means vote-by-mail, or not voting at all,” Mr. Wyden said on a call with reporters in March. “And our case to [Republicans] is that’s not even a close call.”
Mr. Trump, though, is determined to block as much of mail voting as possible.
At one point he threatened to withhold federal money from Michigan if that state pursued mail-in voting. He inaccurately said the state had sent all voters ballots, but the secretary of state sent ballot applications, which can be returned to request a ballot.
The Republican National Committee this week announced it was suing Mr. Newsom to try to block the California governor’s executive order expanding mail-in voting for the state in November.
“The United States cannot have all Mail In Ballots,” the president said on Twitter over the weekend. “It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history. People grab them from mailboxes, print thousands of forgeries and “force” people to sign. Also, forge names.”
Mr. Trump said “some absentee OK, when necessary” — he voted absentee in Florida’s primary this year. But he criticized politicians he said were “trying to use” the coronavirus to advance their political goals.
Twitter attached a label to Mr. Trump’s Tuesday tweets about voter fraud, directing viewers to “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” and redirecting to a Twitter page that says the president made false claims.
Whatever happens this year, Mr. Trump is likely fighting a losing battle in the long run as Americans embrace the mail option.
MIT’s Election Lab says that in 1992, more than 90% of voters cast ballots on Election Day. By 2016, it was just 60%, with the other 40% split about evenly between in-person early voting and mailed-in ballots.
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