editorial

Mail-in voting: fact checking our opinions

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 8/19/20

Last week, we asked our Facebook followers what they thought about mail-in voting. The answer was: a lot. Mirroring a conversation happening on a national scale, many responded that mail-in voting is …

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editorial

Mail-in voting: fact checking our opinions

Posted

Last week, we asked our Facebook followers what they thought about mail-in voting. The answer was: a lot. Mirroring a conversation happening on a national scale, many responded that mail-in voting is more convenient, safer and enfranchising for everybody. Many others, however, said that it puts us on a direct path to fraudulent voting, unfairly benefits one party over the other and threatens our democracy.

Sending a ballot through the mail rather than casting it in person at a polling place is not a novel concept in this country; absentee ballots have been an accepted form of voting since the Civil War. According to MIT’s Election Data & Science Lab, both Confederate and Union soldiers away from home had the option to cast ballots from their battlefield units. However, the debate over the practice’s legitimacy is thornier—and more necessary—now than perhaps ever before.

It’s an especially pertinent question for a couple of reasons. On a regional level, Pennsylvania recently overhauled its electoral code just last year. Chief among the reforms, the commonwealth gave residents the option to vote by mail without needing to provide any justification; this is unlike requesting an absentee ballot, which requires a legitimate excuse. This November will be the first time in PA’s history that any resident can vote in a presidential election by mail. The second, more universal reason is the COVID-19 pandemic. With Americans eager to stay home and remain socially distant from one another, voting by mail was hugely popular in this year’s primary and is expected to be in November. This year, New York State removed mail-in voting restrictions for the sake of public health.

We combed through our followers’ responses to find salient, common themes in the arguments both for and against mail-in voting. Here’s how they hold up against research and data from the experts.

Against: It leaves too much chance for fraud.

This is an understandable concern, and not only because the nation’s president has consistently sounded the alarm about mail-in voter fraud on Twitter. In 2001, a Caltech/MIT report on new voting technologies concluded that “fraud appears to be especially difficult to regulate in absentee systems. In-precinct voting or ‘kiosk’ voting is observable. Absentee voting is not.”

But that was 2001, and these concerns do not seem to have materialized. Oregon is a good case study because it has been conducting elections exclusively by mail since 1998. Between 2000 and 2019, there have been 14 attempted cases of fraudulent mail-in votes in Oregon; that’s out of more than 15 million ballots.

So in Oregon, where mail-in voting has been the standard for more than two decades, the rate of mail-in voter fraud is .00009 percent.

Oregon is just one example, but the findings are consistent across the map: Voting by mail does not heighten the already low risk of voter fraud.

For: It increases participation.

It’s hard to say because the findings have not been consistent or definitive.

According to a 2005 analysis from the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College, “vote by mail increases turnout, perhaps by as much as 10 percent. However, the turnout increases result from the retention of existing voters and not from the recruitment of new voters into the system, and the increase is noticeable only in low profile contests.”

A 2007 study from the Society for Political Methodology actually found that “voting by mail has a negative impact on participation in the context of a general election.”

More recently, California’s Secretary of State made the “increased participation” claim this past May. His office later defended this argument, citing evidence including three out of the four “vote-at-home states” ranked in the top 10 for turnout during the 2018 midterms; in Colorado, voter participation increased by 3.3 percent once it began mailing every voter a ballot in 2014; and Utah was the national leader in voter turnout growth in 2014 after becoming the newest recent state to implement statewide mail-in voting.

The Poynter Institute’s fact-checking mechanism, Politifact, investigated the secretary’s evidence and came to the following ruling: “Several studies concluded that states with vote-by-mail saw a modest increase in voter turnout, though they don’t directly prove [the] claim that this method of voting is responsible for the higher turnout.”

Against: It takes too long to count.

On August 4, the winners of two of New York’s congressional primary races were declared—six weeks after the polls closed.

There is a wide consensus that Pennsylvania and New York’s primaries were chaotic and mishandled this year. And in both cases, mail-in voting was at play.

With both states clearing postal voting restrictions for the first time, election officials were overwhelmed with mail-in ballots. New York City made headlines for rejecting a striking 21 percent of all votes cast. And congressional races in both states dragged for weeks after the day of the election. As news reports have been showing for months, election officials have serious concerns about what this will mean in November, when far more people will be sending in ballots.

These sorts of problems were seen in other states as well. It’s noteworthy, however, that the most notable backfires rang out in those states where election officials had months to prepare for something that vote-from-home states have spent years perfecting.

For: It’s better for both major parties.

Unlike the inconclusive data on voter turnout, there are consistent findings that vote-by-mail options do not give one party advantage over another. The data debunks claims from high-profile Republicans that if election offices accept ballots through the mail, the majority of them will be colored blue.

In one of the most up-to-date studies on the topic, Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research found that voting by mail produces a “neutral partisan effect.”

“In our data, we confirm important conventional wisdom among election experts: vote-by-mail offers voters considerable convenience, increases turnout rates modestly, but has no discernible effect on party vote shares or the partisan share of the electorate.”

Our conclusion:

Allowing citizens to vote by mail is not going to pave the way for widespread voter fraud. It also will not be responsible for a blue wave. While it’s unlikely that it will noticeably impact voter turnout in the 2020 General Election, a significant bump in the participation of primaries, midterms and municipal elections can be expected.

In order to ensure timely results, and—more importantly—to mitigate disenfranchisement by throwing out late and incorrectly filled-out ballots, election officials in states where mail-in voting is unfamiliar territory must quickly learn from those where it is the standard.

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