The Washington Post editorial board penned an opinion that federal leaders need to get behind absentee voting. As usual, I disagree with the premise, that Congress needs to set standards for state-run elections. And, except for Washington, D.C., all elections are state-run. But I do agree with the basic reasoning that voting by mail–absentee voting–is here as the primary method of ballot casting, and it could be here to stay.
Wisconsin totally destroyed their primary by trying to have it, and not planning in advance for people to vote absentee. In contrast, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, on April 6 (the day before the Wisconsin disaster), announced he would mail an absentee ballot application to every voter in Georgia. The state also moved its primary from May (delayed from March), to June 9, to give people time to complete the absentee ballot process by mail.
Not all states will move with the same speed or preparation as Georgia. Not all states are prepared, like California, to handle huge volumes of vote by mail ballots. Georgia is in a fairly good position to accept paper ballots this year, and even vote-in-person locations can convert from the new touchscreen system the state just deployed to paper, as the new system actually completes a paper ballot printed from the touch system. To “convert” polling locations simply need to skip the touchscreens. I imagine most will, if they open at all.
As time is short, now is the time for imaginative solutions. Some options could include expanding “early voting” to allow a three-day process for casting votes (A through G come on Friday, H though N on Monday, and O through Z on Tuesday, for instance). Or perhaps a drive-through polling place where the ballot is handed through a cracked window and placed in the scanner on the way out. People are very creative and if buying lunch at Wendy’s can be done safely, or getting tested for COVID-19 at CVS’s huge Georgia Tech drive-through facility can be done efficiently, then the same creativity can be applied to polling places.
Politics is certainly involved, at both the state and federal level. As the Post editors write, this will cost money, and it politically helps Democrats. I don’t think Congress failing to appropriate money for states to deploy vote by mail systems will stop a large number of absentee ballots from being used in November, even in states that require an “excuse” for not voting in person. I think the excuse will end up being “the polling location was closed,” should social distancing restrictions remain in effect.
These are all local decisions, though. While I’m sure there is an argument for the federal government to fund 100% of the states’ costs for converting to vote-by-mail, the Post’s editors are certainly engaging in a partisan play to maximize turnout, which many times hurts Republican candidates, especially President Trump.
On the other hand, the president’s opposition to vote-by-mail as a vehicle for fraud is probably overblown this election, but as a national standard, it would be, long term, a problem. States are notoriously bad at maintaining up-to-date election rolls, and even when states try to cull the rolls in accordance with federal law, it becomes a political and legal tangle. (Like in Georgia’s 2018 election, which Stacey Abrams still claims to have won because Gov. Brian Kemp, then secretary of state, complied with a years-long plan to purge the rolls.)
A sustained plan by political action groups to inflate voter rolls by registration drives, with little oversight and the potential for enormous fraud, can overwhelm a state’s ability to catch these fraudulent votes if all elections were conducted by mail. California has encountered the same glitches other states fear when it rolled out automatic voter registration. Without some kind of regular in-person, or other secure verification of voters, the potential for widespread, systemic abuse exists.
The states need to figure out their own ways of safely conducting vote-by-mail elections. If Democrats benefitted from low turnout, you’d see them oppose automatic registration and mandatory vote by mail proposals, and you’d see Republicans cheering for them. That’s politics.
Politics aside, however, states need to realize that the current pandemic could suppress people from exercising their right to vote. And that’s a federal issue. Federal courts could invalidate entire state election certifications if it’s found that the state could not accommodate a large number (I don’t know what the test of “large” is) of voters. This could throw our November general election, and Trump’s second term or not, into complete and utter chaos.
For me, it’s no stretch to believe that President Trump would favor chaos over losing. But let’s not blame the president and Republicans in Congress for state officials’ failure to plan for a pandemic election conducted largely by mail.
I expect that the vote-by-mail system will be tested and judged effective this year in places where it’s been promoted (like Georgia). But that doesn’t mean we should rush into adopting it nationwide and without giving thought to very real fraud concerns, in the long term.
States need to do the work here, but vote-by-mail is here, very likely to stay.