And yet, in Wisconsin, Republicans and Democrats on the Wisconsin Elections Commissions have now agreed to mail an absentee ballot application to every registered voter.
That actually might not harm Trump — the evidence does not necessarily show that vote-by-mail benefits Democrats — but Trump thinks it will. And so, in doing this, Republicans in Wisconsin have bucked his wishes.
And that’s good news for democracy. It probably means higher turnout amid conditions that are highly unpredictable, given the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus.
“It will make a big difference,” Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told me.
One key reason for this lies in the uniqueness of this situation. Because the threat of the novel coronavirus is so unprecedented, countless numbers of people will be voting by mail for the first time, and that means they’ll have difficulty with the procedural ins and outs.
But if applications are mailed to every registered voter, that’s an important first step, removing one big hurdle.
“This raises the chance for people to figure out how to navigate the intentionally byzantine process of people being able to vote from home,” Wikler told me, though he still worries GOP mischief might derail this.
There’s another interesting layer here, too. Numerous outside groups will also be contacting voters and trying to get them to apply for vote-by-mail ballots. As I documented in my book, research and experience show that repeated contact with voters is crucial to getting people to register and vote.
And so, if the state sends all registered voters a ballot application and instructions on how to use it, and many outside groups are doing the same (many groups will just be targeting voters in their own party, but there will be groups on both sides), that repetition could get more people to apply, Wikler expects. Especially if applications arrive bearing the official stamp of the state of Wisconsin.
There is precedent for this working. Back in the spring, when Republicans blocked various Democratic efforts to make it easier to vote by mail, two communities north of Milwaukee actually did mail absentee ballot applications to all voters.
As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, both those communities achieved extremely high rates of absentee voting. This is not necessarily that indicative of what could happen statewide, because those are affluent communities, but it suggests mailing ballots to all voters really could at least help boost participation despite the coronavirus.
And remember, despite GOP efforts to impede vote-by-mail in the spring election, Democrats were able to keep turnout higher than expected through tremendous organizing efforts. If applications are mailed to all voters, even as Democrats try to duplicate what they’ve now learned to do, there’s a real chance at making this work.
“For democracy to function in a pandemic, people have to be able to vote without them risking their lives,” Wikler said. “Anything that makes it easier for voters in every part of the state to vote for home is a step towards a functioning democracy.”
We simply don’t know how this will turn out. But ultimately what this will really require is just grinding it out.
Right now, Democrats are fighting in court in all the battleground states to chip away at various piecemeal limits on vote-by-mail. If they can win a bunch of those, and if more and more states take substantial steps towards proactively helping voters participate this way — as Wisconsin now has — it could make a real difference.