Foreign Affairs

Mail-in voting: busting the myths

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As coronavirus cases in the United States continue to climb, the likelihood of holding a presidential election as normal this November is shrinking by the day. As a result, voting by mail – where voters are sent and then post their ballot rather than having to visit a polling station – has become a hot topic.

Some politicians, not least US President Donald Trump, have cast doubt on the validity of postal votes, saying widespread mail-in voting would enable mass fraud. Democrats and Republicans recently clashed over a stimulus package which would provide extra funding to the postal service. Meanwhile, the USPS has warned 46 states that it may not be able to deliver ballots on time to be counted in line with electoral rules.

But Trump and others have relied on some erroneous statements to argue against voting by mail. Five of the most common myths are busted below.

Mail-in voting is more liable to fraud

In May, Trump doubled down on his scepticism about mail-in voting, saying at a press conference that ‘Mail-in ballots are very dangerous. There’s tremendous fraud involved and tremendous illegality’.

Mail-in voting sceptics could point to a small number of prominent examples of voter fraud in the US in recent years, such as in a 2018 primary in North Carolina, which was re-run after revelations of vote tampering.

However, multiple studies and investigations have found instances of voter fraud through mail-in voting to be extremely rare. A study by the Brennan Center, a non-partisan law and public policy institute, concluded that the overall rate of voter fraud in the US is between 0.00004% and 0.0009%.

The Brennan Center have also stated specifically that mail ballots are ‘secure and essential’.

A database of instances of election fraud collected by the University of Arizona since 2000 does show that absentee ballot fraud made up the largest proportion of cases. But in the 20 years since 2000, hundreds of millions of votes have been cast and just 491 examples of absentee ballot voter fraud identified.

Five US states now conduct votes almost entirely through mail-in ballots, and report very little fraud.

Absentee/mail-in voting is new

Widespread absentee voting was first used during the American Civil War. The system allowed 150,000 of 1 million Union soldiers to vote from the battlefield in 1864.

More recently, a number of US states have conducted elections almost entirely by mail; all 50 states are obliged to offer voting by mail to residents who are unable to visit a polling booth on election day, be it due to illness or work. 34 states (plus Washington, DC) offer ‘no-excuse’ vote by mail, meaning any resident can request a postal ballot for any reason.

Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – already conduct elections predominantly through bail-in ballots.

That’s not to say the transition to mail-in voting – which many more Americans will likely opt for if the coronavirus pandemic continues on its current path – will be straightforward. In June, many Georgians voted by mail in a primary which went horribly wrong when voters did not receive their ballots and were forced to wait for hours outside polling stations.

The 2020 Presidential Election will be conducted entirely through mail-in voting

President Trump recently declared that universal mail-in voting would be ‘catastrophic’ and make the US a ‘laughing stock’.

But so far, only nine states plus Washington, DC intend to hold voting entirely by mail this November. This will mean postal ballots are automatically sent out to all registers voters without them having to request one. In a majority of states, voters will have to request their ballot in the mail and polling stations will open as usual.

Mail-in ballots are more liable to fraud than absentee ballots

Donald Trump caused bemusement when he made a distinction between ‘bad, dishonest and slow’ mail-in ballots and absentee ballots, which are ‘fine, because you have to go through a precise process’.

But election experts have pointed out that differentiating between mail-in and absentee voting is misleading. Most states now allow residents to vote by mail regardless of whether or not they are technically ‘absent’, and the process of applying for a postal ballot is almost identical either way.

The president himself has voted by mail several times, as he is registered to vote in Florida. Trump and his wife requested absentee ballots for the state last week. What Trump says he takes issue with is the automatic distribution of postal ballots. But this will only take place in nine states at time of writing.

Mail-in voting favours the Democrats

Several Republicans have claimed that widespread mail-in voting would decimate the Republican Party. GOP speaker of the House in Georgia, David Ralston, claimed earlier this year that a move to mail-in voting would be ‘devastating’ Republicans.

Donald Trump has singled out several states who are seeking to expand their postal voting provisions, especially those with Democratic governors. He falsely claimed that the Democratic governor of California had been ‘sending Ballots to millions of people…no matter who they are or how they got there’.

Elsewhere, the president has accused the Democrats of trying to ‘steal an election’ through expansion of mail-in voting, an issue of contention in recent talks over a coronavirus stimulus package. During cross-party discussions, Trump said he opposed additional USPS funding because of his concerns over mail-in voting.

However, research by Stanford University has indicated that voting by mail does not have a partisan effect.

Trump has backtracked somewhat on his damning of postal voting, perhaps having realised that in some states the system is used disproportionately by Republican voters. For example in Florida, where Trump narrowly won in 2016: according to the president voting by mail in the state is ‘Safe and Secure, Tried and True’. Many older Americans choose to retire in Florida; over-65s are more likely to vote by mail and to favour Trump.

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