States Postpone Primaries  |  Ballot Access  |  Expand Vote by Mail?

Voting in a Time of Coronavirus – Expand Vote by Mail?

ema updated 07/30/20 - Vote by mail (or vote at home) provides a safe way to vote during the time of coronavirus.  The question of expanding absentee voting or vote by mail emerged as a major focus for election officials, legislators and lawyers in the six to seven months heading into Election Day, November 3. 

Proponents argue vote at home provides security, convenience and cost-savings. Opponents say it opens the way to voter fraud.  In particular President Trump took a strong stand against vote by mail, saying, "Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting (1,2)." 

Vote by mail is not without risk (+), but neither is it open door to fraud.  Oregon started using the system in 2000, and four other states—Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Washington—now use vote by mail, as do military personnel.  Thus there is a body of experience that vote by mail with proper safeguards works. Mail-in voting should not be a partisan issue (+). 
Public health officials support vote by mail (+).  

Although Democrats in Congress introduced legislation to expand no-excuse absentee voting to all states (+), this issue is going to be addressed state by state and in some instances locality by locality
.  The concept of vote by mail is simple enough, but in states which may, for example, have had only a limited absentee ballot program, there are many details to be hashed out:

  • Should absentee ballots automatically sent out to all registered voters? Does that include inactive voters? 
  • If voters must apply for an absentee ballot, do they need to provide a reason? 
  • What sort of identifying information must a person supply when requesting / returning an absentee ballot? 
  • Is the U.S. Postal Service up to the job in delivering ballots to voters and returning them to election officials in a timely manner (1, 2)?
  • In terms of returning the ballot, should voter identification and witness signature requirements be loosened (1, 2)? 
  • Are absentee ballots prepaid or do they require the voter to apply postage?
  • Must the U.S. Mail be used to return ballots or are special drop boxes, situated in strategic locations an acceptable approach?
  • If there are questions about a voter's signature, how are those resolved (+)?
  •  Do election officials allow the voter the opportunity to fix signature or other problems ("cure" the ballot) (+)?
  • Must ballots be received by election day, or can they be postmarked by election day (+)?  As a corollary, how should election officials treat ballots that have no postmark (+)?
  • Is ballot harvesting an acceptable procedure? 
Some of the 2020 primaries, presidential or otherwise, are providing a trial run, allowing officials to work out these issues.  Starting in March there has been much activity by secretaries of state, legislators, governors and lawyers, often but not always along partisan lines.  And there is litigation, lots of litigation, all around the country.  For example:

Partisan disputes over absentee mail in voting rules were a major part of the saga the developed around Wisconsin's April 7 Presidential Preference Primary and Spring Election (+)

Nevada's June 9 primary, which Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegaveske announced on March 24 would be all mail, provides a good case study of the legal and political maneuvering around this issue (+)

In Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order allowing all eligible residents to vote absentee in the Aug. 11 primary and Secretary of State Denise Merrill is urging the legislature to change the statute ahead of the November election (+).

In Texas the law "requires in-person voting except in narrow carefully defined circumstances," and Attorney General Ken Paxton has been working to ensure the law is followed to the letter (+).

• In Tennessee, the law had a "very narrow list of criteria" for absentee voting.  In response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU a judge ruled on June 4 that "the state must make absentee voting available to every eligible voter for all elections in 2020."  State officials are appealing (+).

In Missouri on June 4 Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill under which "a mail-in absentee ballot will only be an option for voters who specifically request one."  Further, "To prevent voter fraud and ballot harvesting, voters must also submit a notarized statement under penalty of perjury with their ballot (+)."

For the November general election, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order on May 8 requiring county officials to mail a ballot to every registered voter ahead of the November 3 general election.  Republicans filed a lawsuit terming Newsom's action an unlawful power grab "violating eligible voters’ rights and creating an opportunity for fraud."  The state legislature subsequently passed legislation requiring county officials to mail a ballot to every active registered voter (+).

•  Michigan is pursuing a more measured approach; on May 19 Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced all 7.7 million registered voters will receive an application to vote by mail (+)

hanges to voting, if they are to be made, should be put in place well before November 3 so as to allow litigation to be resolved, permit voter education (+) and avoid confusion; unfortunately over the last several decades there are many examples of election rules being litigated right up to the day of the election.  To achieve a safe voting experience for all voters in the November general election—which should be something both parties can agree on—will require a mix of vote by mail with appropriate safeguards as well as sufficient in-person polling places.

MIT Election Data + Science Lab: "Voting by mail and absentee voting"
NCSL: "All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-By Mail)"
EAC: Voting by Mail/Absentee Voting
Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project
National Vote at Home Institute
RNC Protect The Vote .
Public Interest Legal Foundation
Democracy Docket

See Also:
Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Jacob Bogage.  "Postal Service backlog sparks worries that ballot delivery could be delayed in November."  Washington Post, July 30, 2020.

U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. "2020 General Election Preparations."  Hearing, July 22, 2020.

U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform.  Request for information about operational changes at the U.S. Postal Service.  Letter,  July 20, 2020.

Pam Fessler and Elena Moore.  "Signed, Sealed, Undelivered: Thousands Of Mail-In Ballots Rejected For Tardiness."  NPR, July 13, 2020.

U.S. House Judiciary Committee.  "Protecting the Right to Vote During the COVID Pandemic."  Hearing, June 3, 2020.

Press Release.  "U.S. Postal Service Provides Recommendations for Successful 2020 Election Mail Season."  U.S. Postal Service, May 29, 2020.

Gregg Re. "RNC launches ProtectTheVote website to highlight election integrity efforts amid coronavirus pandemic." Fox News, May 8, 2020.

Alex Isenstadt.  "Trump intensifies war with Democrats over voting laws."  Politico, May 7, 2020.

Emily Bazelon.  "Will Americans Lose Their Right to Vote in the Pandemic?"  New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2020.

And Note:
There are costs associated with going to vote by mail.  The CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020 provided for $400 million in grants or "Help America Vote Act (HAVA) emergency funds, made available to states to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus for the 2020 federal election cycle." These funds can be used for such matters as "cleaning supplies and protective masks for staff and poll workers, resources to meet an unanticipated increased demand for mail ballots due to self-isolation and quarantine in response to COVID-19, and temporary staff to process the increased absentee ballot demand." (1, 2)  Advocates have called for as much as $4 billion in addition funding to help states prepare for the November election.