What the president perhaps does not realize is that the major issue for the November election has always been absentee voting. The question of universal mail-in voting is a sideshow. The administrative difference is that absentee voting requires the voter to request an absentee ballot, while in universal mail-in voting, the government affirmatively mails out absentee ballots to every person listed on the voter registration rolls.
The system that most states will be using this fall is absentee voting — precisely the system Trump and Pence have repeatedly endorsed. As of now, 33 states will permit people to vote absentee this fall without any special justification (as in Florida) or will permit fear of covid-19 to be a sufficient justification. That includes this election’s six critical swing states as well as most of the additional states even potentially up for grabs. It also includes many “red states.” Four other states, including three in the South — Kentucky, South Carolina and West Virginia — also used no-excuse absentee voting in their spring primaries, which makes them likely to do so as well this fall. That would bring the total number of states using the system the president has endorsed to 37.
Only eight states will be using universal mail-in voting, four of which have been using that system since well before this election, meaning their process is likely to run as smoothly as in prior elections. Only four states have shifted to universal vote-by-mail for this election cycle: Vermont, Nevada, California and Hawaii. The president has already decried Nevada’s recent switch and sued to stop it, but even if critics want to attack these four new, “universal vote-by-mail” states — or all eight of them — they are shooting at a small target. And whether the president likes it or not, at least 41 states, and 45 more likely, will permit voters to cast their ballots by mail, either through absentee voting or “universal vote-by-mail.” Only Texas, Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi as of now do not accept fear of covid-19 as a reason for absentee voting (litigation challenging that restriction is pending in three of those states).
Many liberal commentators have reacted to Trump’s comments by reflexively making fun of him. They shout, sometimes in all caps, ABSENTEE AND MAIL-IN VOTING ARE THE SAME THING. Alternatively, they point out high-ranking administration officials who have voted absentee in past elections, to charge the president with hypocrisy.
The better strategy for those who support absentee voting is to recognize when victory is staring them in the face and grasp it. As a practical matter, the form of mail-in voting that really matters for this fall is absentee voting. The die is cast on that. But in our polarized culture, it is also crucial that the election process be accepted as legitimate, among as many citizens as possible.
Now that the president and vice president have roundly endorsed absentee voting, the focus should be on making sure that everyone understands that. Reporters should be confirming with public officials that they support absentee voting; commentators should be emphasizing the breadth of agreement on this. Down the road, we can argue about whether the administrative difference between absentee voting and universal mail-in voting — whether voters must request an absentee ballot or will be sent one by the state — makes one approach better than the other. For now, the more urgent task is to ensure that the predominant form of mail-in voting this fall is widely endorsed.
To be sure, litigation will continue over some of the mechanics of absentee voting, such as when ballots must be postmarked and received, who should pay the postage and other issues. And it is indeed likely, as I have noted elsewhere, that some problems with absentee voting will emerge this fall, when the entire system must gear up, virtually overnight, for unprecedented levels of absentee voting. That is why substantial capacity for in-person voting will also be critical this fall. But the predominant form that mail-in voting will take is absentee voting. Every time the president says “absentee voting is good but … ,” the right thing to do is to make sure his endorsement of absentee voting is heard widely.