With two months before the general election – and amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – mail-in voting has taken on a greater importance, and drawn more political attention, than in elections past.
But allegations of fraud, chaos and partisan bias – most prominently from President Trump, who recently urged people to vote twice to “test” the system -- are simply unfounded, says Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, who earlier this year published research about mail-in voting in Colorado. In that study, he and his co-authors showed how vote-by-mail increased turnout across demographic groups.
Grumbach points to an April poll from Reuters/Ipsos that showed a majority of Republicans and Democrats support providing all voters with a mail-in ballot in the November election. Other research shows that vote-by-mail has not benefited one party over the other in elections.
“Mail voting benefits all kinds of voters, of all ages, races, geographies and partisan identities. And despite Trump's attacks on mail voting, voters from both parties support it,” Grumbach said. “The very few documented cases of attempted fraud have quickly been detected. The risk of human and technological error is also no more prevalent than with traditional ballots.”
In light of ongoing interest in mail-in voting, Grumbach weighed in with some research-based perspective.
Why do you see vote-by-mail as positive?
Mail-in voting makes it more convenient for people to vote. It saves voters time, making voting more convenient for those without easy access to transportation, and mitigates the effects of Election-Day obstacles like bad weather or issues at work. It avoids potentially long lines at polling places. Moreover, it gives voters more time to consider the issues and candidates with their ballot in hand, rather than feeling rushed at the polling place. That is why mail voting increases voter turnout.
What role could mail-in voting play in the outcome of the 2020 presidential election?
Mail-in voting will probably increase turnout in 2020 more than it has before, simply because it's the safest way to vote during a pandemic. However, there is a big concern that Trump and the Republican Party will attack the legitimacy of mail-in ballots if the election turns out to be close. For instance, if mail ballots are still being counted but Trump is ahead slightly, the Trump team may attempt to say that the ballot counting should stop. In the midst of a pandemic, Americans should be prepared for ballot counting to be ongoing potentially after election night, and they should wait until all ballots are counted before accepting someone as the winner.
What do you see as the biggest potential challenge to successful administration of vote-by-mail this year?
There are some challenges for state and county election administrators to switch to mail voting, but none are extreme. California is implementing it statewide for the first time this year, and it appears to be going very well because all administrators are pushing in the same direction: to make it easy for people to vote. The main issue, as I said earlier, is in challenges to the legitimacy of mail voting and mailed-in ballots.
With news of some of the changes in services, should voters be worried about the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle mail-in ballots this fall?
Given concerns about deliberate attempts to slow down the USPS, voters should request mail ballots as soon as possible, and they should turn them in early. However, many USPS operatives are making clear that they will deliver mail ballots no matter what, so voters should not be discouraged.
Nine states, plus Washington, D.C., have universal mail-in voting, while 34 other states allow all residents to vote by absentee ballot. How could vote-by-mail become more standard, and more accepted, nationwide?
Mail-in voting is popular everywhere it is implemented, as well as where it hasn't been yet. State governments are constitutionally in charge of administering elections, so it's really a question of whether state governments will do what their constituents want, and make it more convenient to vote. This should go along with automatic and same-day voter registration, as Washington state provides. These kinds of reforms are crucial for making it possible for people to make their voices heard in American democracy.