Update, May 4: New research from a group of political scientists affirms that mail-in voting in Colorado raised turnout more than 10 points among the most vulnerable demographics, including low-income voters, and benefited Republicans and Democrats equally. It’s powerful support for the argument that mail-in voting should be universally accessible for the November elections. The following piece, making that argument, was originally published on April 8, 2020.

The political climate in the US is tumultuous. The Covid-19 pandemic hangs over everything even as a dozen other issues — an oil crisis, a divided Democratic Party, and a corrupt, impeached president — compete for our scant remaining attention.

Into that muddle, I would like to introduce what I hope is a note of clarity, a fixed point around which all Americans of good faith ought to be able to rally.

To wit: Americans need to have safe, free, and fair federal elections in November.

The date of the election is in law and can’t be changed without an act of Congress. The country is in a fragile, distrustful place already, and a chaotic election viewed by large swathes of the population as illegitimate could tip it over into a full-fledged constitutional crisis or even violence. This is a make-or-break issue for the country.

There is no way to stop Trump from characterizing the election as compromised; he accuses opponents of fraud in all elections, whether he wins or not. He has already tried to cheat in the 2020 election — got impeached for it just a couple of months/centuries ago — and will undoubtedly continue trying, even as he ramps up accusations against Democrats. He assumes Democrats will do the exact same thing: cheat and accuse him of cheating.

His tweet in early April captured his argument succinctly:

And where Trump goes, right-wing state media, led by Fox, dutifully follow. They will back him up with conspiracy theories about voter fraud that at least some large part of the core conservative base will believe.

But what happens around the margins matters. Committed partisans will line up the same way regardless of the fact that voting is not partisan (Utah, a red state, has a 100 percent vote-by-mail system.) But that leaves a large, fuzzy, semi-engaged class of voters whose opinion of the election will be shaped by their personal experience and the signals they receive from trusted sources about the validity of the process.

The best way for Democrats to ensure that November’s elections are viewed as free and fair amid a coronavirus pandemic is to make them so. The best way to make them so, in the time remaining, is to implement universal access to postage-paid mail-in ballots with extended deadlines, serviced by a funded and functional Postal Service. (This is not the only reform needed, but it is the backbone.)

The only way for Democrats to secure that policy is to make it non-negotiable bottom line — a condition of voting through any further stimulus bills. This would be a tough political strategy to follow through on, running counter to national Democrats’ institutional timidity and fears about holding up cash and unemployment for those who really need it. They would be attacked ruthlessly by the right and mau-maued endlessly by the centrist pundits whose opinions they so prize.

But it is the right thing to do on the merits, so they should do it, and defend it without apology. This ought to be a messaging war they can win. If not, what good are they?

It might seem obvious to say that free and fair elections are important in a democracy. But this year, they are by no means assured.

Without reform, elections will be an entirely foreseeable disaster

Experts say social distancing could last six months or more, and even after that, it’s possible that the virus could periodically return in various cities or regions, occasioning new stay-at-home orders. Even South Korea and Singapore, places where the virus response has been considered exemplary, which thought they might be reaching the far end, are now reinstituting social distancing measures. Without a vaccine, there is no certain plan, anywhere in the world, for how to emerge on the other side of this thing.

Compared to those two countries, the US’s response has been a fiasco. The US has more than 12,000 reported deaths, the third-highest count in the world after Italy and Spain. The US is woefully behind in testing and tracking, the two key tools for bringing the virus under control. And there is still no coherent federal plan to secure needed medical supplies, ramp up testing, or bring social distancing to a safe end.

It may simply not be safe to go out and vote in person, among crowds of other people, in November.

Unless changes are made, the elections will thrust a choice upon millions of Americans, especially those from the most vulnerable populations (the elderly, people of color, people with chronic medical conditions): vote and put your safety at risk, or skip voting to stay safe.

No democracy worth the name can allow that to happen.

Republicans have recently become convinced that voting by mail is corrupt and a partisan issue

Voting by mail is not designed to give one party or the other an advantage. “It’s not partisan,” says Amber McReynolds, CEO for the National Vote At Home Institute, “it’s about making sure every voter can vote in a secure, effective, and safe way.” (More on this below.)

Nonetheless, it is clear that someone or some organization on the right has recently been working to convince Republicans otherwise.

When Democrats suggested voting reform for the phase 3 stimulus bill, Trump warned of “levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

In a recent interview discussing Georgia’s upcoming primary election, state House Speaker David Ralston conceded that, if every voter got a mail-in absentee ballot, it “will certainly drive up turnout,” but that would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.”

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander contended that forcing voters to risk their lives is preferable to voting by mail. “Around the world we’ve had people in new democracies go to vote when their lives were at risk because the right to vote was so precious,” said the mordant lawmaker. “Most Americans would be very skeptical of significant changes in our ability to go cast a ballot in person, certainly at this point.”

The House’s foremost Trump supplicant, Thomas Massie, even tweeted that “universal vote by mail would be the end of our republic as we know it.”

The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reports several more examples of Republicans across the country attacking mail-in voting — mainly, it seems, because groups they view as liberal, including Democrats, support it.

When pressed, conservatives will generally say that they oppose mail-in voting because of the potential for fraud. But it’s clear that what they really fear is more people (the wrong people) voting.

Both fears are misplaced.

Voting by mail is not partisan

The US Election Assistance Commission releases a yearly Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS). The 2018 edition reports on the state of mail-in voting and early voting:

All states allow for some form of by-mail voting and in-person early voting for at least some segments of their domestic civilian population, although how that happens in practice varies widely. Three states [Colorado, Oregon, and Washington] administer their elections entirely by mail and four states have all-by-mail voting in select local jurisdictions. About one-quarter of states require in-person early voters to provide an excuse. Almost one-third of states have vote centers or allow voters to cast ballots at any polling place in their jurisdiction.

As the 2017 EAVS report showed, the percentage of Americans early, absentee, or mail voting doubled from 24.9 million in 2004 to 57.2 million in 2016, to roughly two out of every five ballots cast.

early, absentee, and mail voting EAVS

By 2018, the percentage voting by mail reached almost 26 percent, more than one out of every four American voters.

EAVS voting EAVS

The trend is particularly pronounced in the West, where 68 percent of voters voted by mail in 2018.

Analysts expected those numbers to rise in 2020. Since 2018, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have moved to no-excuse absentee ballots, California has shifted to 100 percent mail-in voting for over half its population, and Hawaii has gone 100 percent. Gerry Langeler, director of communications and research at the National Vote at Home Institute, told me that, in the absence of the virus, they were expecting mail-in voting numbers to hit the mid-70s in the West and around 30 percent nationally in 2020. (Now, with the virus, no one knows for sure.)

That’s almost a third of the population, and not all in blue states. Utah has a 100 percent mail-in voting system. Counties had to opt in; the final county did so last year. (This Washington Monthly story recounts the patient expansion.)

“Being a very red state,” Utah director of elections Justin Lee told Weigel, “we haven’t seen anything that helps one party over another at all.”

Red Nebraska allows any county with 10,000 residents or less to shift to mail-in voting. “Rural parts of the country benefit tremendously from this kind of system,” says McReynolds; it can save rural residents from long drives to polling places. In the 2018 election, statewide voter turnout in Nebraska averaged 58 percent; turnout in the four counties with mail-in voting averaged 71 percent.

In red North Dakota, 31 of 53 counties have shifted to mail-in voting. Even red Texas allows no-excuse access to mail-in absentee ballots … for voters 65 and older. (Like Medicare, but for accessible voting!)

Another fan: Donald Trump, who voted absentee in Florida a few weeks ago.

Mail-in voting has increased turnout in those red states just as it has in blue states, and there is no evidence that it has increased turnout disproportionately among Democratic voters.

Rather, vote-by-mail primarily seems to increase turnout among low-propensity voters without strong partisan attachments (unaffiliated voters, or UAFs).

It was long conventional wisdom in US politics that UAFs tended to vote Democratic when they showed up, because UAFs tend to be clustered in vulnerable populations. But as long-time political strategist and analyst Celinda Lake says, “that can include people of color in inner cities, but it can also include white people in trailer parks in North Carolina.” It was Trump himself, she says, who overturned the conventional wisdom.

In 2016, increased turnout brought UAFs off the sidelines into his camp, not Clinton’s. The same could happen in 2020. After all, the group among which mail-in voting seems to most increase turnout is voters 65 and older. That is not exactly a stalwart Democratic demographic.

There’s just no evidence that mail-in voting disproportionately benefits Democrats. A February 2020 survey of 12,000 non-voters by the Knight Foundation concluded that, “if they all voted in 2020, non-voters would add an almost equal share of votes to Democratic and Republican candidates.”

Regardless, that shouldn’t be the point. “This intertwining of election policies and procedures with partisan outcomes not helpful to anybody,” says McReynolds. “It’s who votes, not who wins.”

With mail-in voting, more people vote. And they love it. Rozan Mitchell, previously election director of Salt Lake County, told the Monthly: “I didn’t realize how important that was to some people, that they could take that ballot they got in the mail, sit down at the kitchen table, and really study out the issues. I feel like vote-by-mail voters are much more informed than the average voter who would just show up on Election Day.”

No county or state that has adopted mail-in voting, red or blue, wants to go back.

Voting by mail is not corrupt

Trump keeps saying that voting by mail makes cheating easy. That is false. In fact, it makes cheating incredibly difficult. Phil Keisling, the former Oregon secretary of state who introduced that state’s mail-in voting system, explains why:

Mail-based voting systems today are far less risky than most polling place elections, precisely because they distribute ballots (and electoral risk) in such a decentralized way. To have any reasonable chance of success, an organized effort to defraud a mail-based system and its safeguards must involve hundreds (if not thousands) of separate acts, all of them individual felonies, that must both occur and go undetected to have any chance of success.

Contrast that to the risks inherent in polling place elections that increasingly rely on direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting systems and proprietary software systems that both record and tally votes. A single successful software hack potentially could affect thousands of votes. It’s the difference between “retail” fraud and “wholesale” fraud.

Vote-by-mail makes wholesale fraud all but impossible. Voters hand mark paper ballots and receive a stub with a code that allows them to track their ballot as it proceeds through the system and ensure that it is properly tallied. It is a trackable paper system — just what election security experts recommend. (As long as it is done well, of course; design matters.)

Because this system doesn’t take place in a private polling booth, people tend to imagine lurid scenarios whereby abusive husbands, controlling pastors, or other bad actors control or otherwise influence other people’s votes. So it’s important to note is that in well-designed mail-in voting systems, anyone who wants to can, any time before election day, go to a polling place, report that their vote was coerced (or just mistaken), and request a replacement ballot. There are mechanisms in place to record and track any such problems, but they just don’t seem to happen on any appreciable scale. (Here the conservative Heritage Foundation struggles to build a pair of dubiously sourced stories from 20 years ago into a case that mail-in voting causes fraud; you can decide whether it’s convincing.)

Residents waited in line for hours to vote in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The only serious modern case of election chicanery associated with mail-in voting was perpetrated by, you guessed it, Republicans. As the New York Times reported, Republican nominee Mark Harris contracted with operative L. McCrae Dowless Jr. in a scheme so blatant even his son thought he should step down over it. And it wasn’t voter fraud, it was GOP operatives defrauding voters, mishandling absentee ballots in an election they were supposed to be fairly administering. And they were caught!

This isn’t the place to completely rehash the case for vote-by-mail; I explained it more fully in a post from 2017 and another from 2018. Suffice it to say, mail-in voting systems have a well-established record, are used regularly by tens of millions of Americans without incident, consistently boost turnout, and are enduringly popular where they have been implemented.

And there is simply no other way to ensure everyone access to voting without forcing them into crowded polling places.

Democrats should go to the mat for voting reform

Democrats have limited leverage in Washington, DC, right now, but they do have some.

It’s clear by now that the $2 trillion recovery package that Congress passed last week is simply not going to be enough. Unemployment is skyrocketing to its highest levels ever, GDP is falling faster than it ever has, and the virus hasn’t even arrived in many places in earnest. There will be much more economic pain and dislocation ahead, and demand for Congress to do more. Already talk of a phase 4 stimulus has begun.

Democrats don’t seem to have internalized this, but Republicans need the next stimulus bill more than they do. Trump can spin every day from his press briefings, and he has a massive media machine that will work to shield him from accountability, but hundreds of thousands of deaths and a historic depression are what they are. Political science shows that voters tend to hold the party in power responsible for their circumstances, especially in the run-up to an election. (Though as political scientist Larry Bartels, the source of much of that research, told me, “no one really knows whether past experience is relevant in our current circumstances.”)

If there’s no additional stimulus after phase 3, the suffering will be vast and unrelenting and Republicans are likely to catch the brunt of the blame. They know this. So whether they admit it or not, they need to pass another stimulus bill.

Democrats control the House of Representatives, so no bill passes unless they agree. That gives them leverage.

I wrote a long post about some of the things that ought to be included in such a bill (or bills), focusing on long-term investments to accelerate the shift to clean energy. But if I had to pick one issue that Democrats should absolutely insist on — one package of reforms without which they should refuse to pass a bill — it would be voting reform.

Vote-by-mail is not a silver bullet or the only voting reform needed. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden have introduced a bill with a package of emergency voting reforms. The Defending Democracy Program has a good list of reforms, including curbside voting (for those with no permanent address) and a number of security measures like post-election audits. The Brennan Center for Justice has its own list, with considerable overlap. (Lake also emphasized same-day registration, a reform many states, including Utah, have used to boost turnout.

But most reformers agree that universal mail-in voting is the core of a safe and secure election system. It’s the simplest and most reliable way to ensure that everyone can participate, especially at a time when going to the polls could be dangerous. Democrats should insist on it.

Holding the line will require unusual spine from Democrats

As Axios documents, there are various voting reforms being contemplated in various states in response to the novel coronavirus — and many more states are likely to get in on the action. But the basic security of federal elections cannot be left entirely to state governments.

Republicans claim to oppose the Klobuchar/Wyden bill because of federalism. States are in charge of election law, they say; no “one size fits all” approach will work. But the bill, like the voting reform bill from House Democrats last month, doesn’t dictate specific procedures or staffing, it simply imposes a few baseline conditions that must be met for the election to count as free and fair. One is universal access to mail-in voting.

Regardless, Republicans are likely to fight federal voting reform with everything they have, if only because they instinctively fight everything Democrats want these days. And as usual, they will have a coordinated media machine behind them to attack and browbeat their opponents. They will accuse Democrats of trying to rig elections. They will accuse Democrats of “playing politics,” holding up needed stimulus for unrelated partisan reasons. They will spin the mainstream media into presenting the whole thing as a political squabble rather than a fight over basic voting rights.

All of that is as predictable as the sun rising.

The phase 3 stimulus fight did not offer much reason to hope that Democrats are willing to stand up to that kind of (by now, numbingly familiar) bullying. When they pushed back on the ludicrous corporate giveaway the Republican Senate put forward, conservatives immediately drove “Democrats delay recovery” headlines into the media and Democrats immediately started sweating. They let DC media get to them — and conservatives find it trivially easy to manipulate DC media. (Trump himself has literally mocked reporters for being such suckers for every “new tone.”)

Still, the stakes are too high this time. The more chaos and uncertainty there is as November approaches, the more opportunities there will be for cheating and the less the American public will trust election results.

If the country wants to conduct free and fair elections, it needs to start preparing now. Procedures need to be put in place; people need to be hired; the Postal Service needs to be bulked up. (The Center for Civic Design has a great tool kit for scaling up mail-in voting; the National Vote at Home Institute has detailed plan for taking mail-in voting national by November; the National Task Force on Election Crises has its own set of Covid-19 related suggestions, also featuring universal mail-in voting.)

Democrats need to prepare themselves for the fight of their lives. Any pro-social policy will be wrested from the hands of recalcitrant Republicans in the Senate through political force. It will be a fight, a game of chicken, not the collaborative bipartisan process of Democratic reveries. They will need a thick skin and uncharacteristic unity. But they have some power if they are willing to use it.

If Democrats don’t get a fair shot at competing in November — in a political system already so heavily tilted against democracy and against Democrats — all their dreams of action on climate change, health care, and immigration reform will come to nothing, and the country they were elected to serve could very well come apart at the seams.

They must hold the line on free and fair elections.

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