His motives are obvious. Survey after survey shows that far more Democrats are planning to vote by mail than Republicans. The reason is simple: Democrats generally take covid-19 more seriously than Republicans do, so they are more likely to steer a wide berth around crowded polling places, which they see as potential sources of infection. A Pew Research Center poll taken in the summer found that a majority of Joe Biden supporters (58 percent) planned to vote by mail — almost exactly the opposite of the preference expressed by Trump supporters (60 percent of whom prefer to vote in person). Of the 9 million voters who requested mail ballots in five key battleground states by Sept. 28, Democrats accounted for 52 percent, while Republicans made up only 28 percent.
Surely, you might say, a mail-in vote should count just as much as one submitted in person at a precinct. Yes — in theory. But reality is much messier. Mail-in votes in many states can be more complicated to fill out than in-person ballots and usually involve additional procedures, such as obtaining affidavits from witnesses. In many states, voters who make a mistake on their ballot when voting in person can be assisted by a poll worker; that’s harder to do with mail-in votes.
All this helps explain why so many mail ballots tend to be disqualified. During this year’s primaries, officials in 23 states collectively rejected 534,000 mail ballots — a quarter of them in battleground states. (Remember that Trump won in 2016 in part thanks to a roughly 80,000-vote margin in three swing states.) In North Carolina, ballots mailed in by African Americans this year have been rejected roughly four times as often as those from White voters, raising serious concerns about the process.
And then there’s the question of whether ballots will arrive on time, an issue thrown into relief by concerns about the declining efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service, which is headed by a Trump appointee who has been assailed for ordering cuts to services — some of which have been rolled back — in the months leading up to Election Day. During the primaries, the Associated Press reported, “Untold thousands of absentee ballot requests went unfulfilled, and tens of thousands of mailed ballots were rejected for multiple reasons including arriving too late to be counted.”
We can certainly hope that election officials nationwide will live up to their civic duty and make sure every ballot is treated with the respect it deserves. But as Post reporting has shown, Republican Party officials are following Trump’s lead by planning an aggressive campaign to disqualify as many mail ballots as possible.
The best way to head off such an outcome is simple: Vote in person.
Understandably, many Americans who acknowledge the scale of the covid-19 pandemic are leery of showing up at crowded polling places; those in high-risk categories, such as the elderly or the immunocompromised, have good reasons to stay home.
But those of us who want to vote in person can take heart from the data. South Korea carried out a national election in April without any upsurge in infections. The Wisconsin primary in March, early in the pandemic, raised fears that polling-place crowds would lead to mushrooming outbreaks, but that didn’t come to pass. Studies show that visiting a precinct to cast a vote carries roughly the same risk as going to the grocery store, as long as voters and officials take the usual precautions. Kumi Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, recommends calling local election officials to find out how they plan to keep polling places safe: Spacing in lines, plexiglass barriers between voters and poll workers, and one-way traffic patterns are musts.
Americans are right to calculate the risks of exposure to the virus. But we should not discount the risk our democracy is facing. Trump has shown throughout his 3½ years in office that he’s a threat to our democratic institutions. His reluctance to declare that he’ll respect the outcome of the election (which he demonstrated again during last week’s debate) merely underlines the danger.
It has been said before, but it bears repeating: This is not a normal election. All Americans should rise to the challenge, whether they’re Democrats, Republicans or independents.
For those who are particularly anxious, voting early (where possible) will help to avoid Election Day crowds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some other helpful recommendations, such as bringing your own black-ink pen to fill out forms or your own stylus for touchscreens (though you should check with poll workers before using the latter). So let’s review our social distancing guidelines, put on our masks and gloves, grab the hand sanitizer, and set off to the polls — as soon as they open.