The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have dedicated at least $20 million to voting-related legal battles throughout the country, but especially in swing states, to oppose some of these vote-by-mail measures being debated in states.
What are their arguments against voting by mail, and do the facts bear them out? Let’s examine the most prominent ones.
It increases voter fraud
There is no evidence of widespread fraud, in either regular voting or mail voting. It’s true that in voting by mail, the ballot is filled out in private, which opens up more potential avenues of fraud. But there is not any evidence of routine or even statistically significant fraud in the five states that do all-mail elections, election experts say.
These states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — have best practices, such as having the voter sign the envelope of the ballot, which they then match with the signature in the state’s voter rolls, or tracking the ballot with a bar code to and from a voter’s home.
A frequent concern among opponents of mail-in ballots is whether to allow someone besides the voter to collect a ballot and drop it off at a mail center or ballot drop-off location, something allowed in many states.
“From a voter’s point of view, it may be taken as a kindness if someone offers to mail in or drop off a voted ballot (in its signed envelope),” writes Wendy Underhill, the director of the elections and redistricting program at the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures — especially when vulnerable populations are asked to stay at home as much as possible in a pandemic.
There is some precedent for fraud on this, including in 2019, when a North Carolina congressional election was thrown out after a political operative for the Republican in the race collected absentee ballots and illegally tampered with them before turning them in. Opponents of collecting ballots call it ballot harvesting.
In states where it’s legal for a third party to collect and turn in ballots, political operatives from both sides routinely do it. “We were well aware of this, we even did it ourselves,” a spokesman for the California GOP told Fox News in 2018 of collecting ballots after Republicans watched last-minute absentee ballots turn the tide against them in several key congressional races.
States can enact laws to limit who can collect ballots. California legalized ballot collecting in 2016 but has since made it illegal to get paid to collect ballots and for employers to ask employees to bring their ballots into their workplace. Arizona says no one other than a family member, household member or caregiver can return your ballot. And Montana limited the amount of ballots people can collect and drop off to six.
Ballots go missing
A nonprofit law firm opposed to mail-in ballots without certain restrictions, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, recently alleged data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission show that since 2012, 28 million ballots have gone missing.
But Vote at Home, a nonpartisan group advocating for more mail elections, said that was a twisted reading of the data because it conflated people who voted with people who didn’t. Some states automatically mail voters ballots, for example, and not every single voter fills it out. “An un-cast ballot is not a missing ballot,” Vote at Home writes.
“If voters choose not to vote, even though the ballot is on the kitchen table, that’s their decision,” said Underhill with the NCSL in an email to The Fix.
But Michael Morley, an election law expert at Florida State University’s law school, cautions that states’ voter rolls aren’t necessarily up to date. When California decides to mail out ballots automatically to all voters on the rolls, they may not get to the right person all the time. That could lead to a perception of fraud, he said. For that reason, Morley supports mailing out application cards for a ballot, which could help clean up voter rolls. Iowa’s secretary of state told The Fix that state plans to do this, with prepaid postage for people to return their applications.
Notably, Trump criticized Michigan’s secretary of state for sending out absentee ballots when in reality she was sending absentee ballot applications.
But critics warn requiring voters to fill out an application first creates an extra step to vote that they wouldn’t normally have to take, potentially confusing people about whether they’ll receive a ballot or discouraging them from applying.
It helps Democrats
“[Democrats had] levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said in March on Fox about Democrats’ proposal to expand mail voting due to the risks of contracting the novel coronavirus.
Several studies have shown this is not the case.
A Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research survey published in April looked at mail elections in three states from 1996 to 2018 and found the partisan effect to be “neutral” both in turnout and vote share for either party. The study did say vote-by-mail “modestly increases overall average turnout rate” — something Trump argues will help Democrats — but the study found no party noticeably benefited from it.
The New York Times reported on studies from recent all-mail elections in Utah and Colorado and found people who aren’t as likely to vote in primaries and down-ballot elections mailed in ballots in higher numbers. But there still was no noticeable boost for either Republicans or Democrats. That may be because traditional voting patterns are still in play when you mail ballots: Young voters, who lean Democratic, move a lot, so they can be difficult to find. Retirees, who lean Republican, are still reliable voters even by mail.
And a 2018 study in the American Politics Research Journal found vote by mail can be good for increasing down-ballot participation. Mailing a voter a ballot allows them more time to get informed, and those voters then fill out their ballot at higher rates than in-person voting, at least in presidential elections.
Mail voting is different — and somehow worse — than absentee ballots
Trump has said this, and then repeated it, when asked to explain why he voted by absentee in Florida even though he opposes all-mail elections. It’s true that an absentee ballot has the connotation of having a reason to need to vote by mail rather than in person (such as not being in the state at the time of the election).
But there is no practical difference in the ballots. Both are both mailed to you to fill out and return. “Most people use ‘mail voting’ and ‘absentee voting’ interchangeably,” said Underhill, the elections expert with NCSL.
In fact, many states will probably ramp up their absentee ballot system for elections rather than transition to an all-mail election. Sixteen states require people to list an excuse on a form for why they can’t go to the polls in person, but some of those states are considering relaxing those requirements so that simply not wanting to vote in person during a pandemic counts as an excuse.
There isn’t enough money or equipment to properly hold an all-mail election
A group of voting experts wrote in The Washington Post that they are concerned about this: While the five states that do all-mail elections have figured out ways to track ballots to and from the voter, keep their voter roll addresses up to date and secure ballots, election experts say it took years, not months. But months are all that states have. “Rushing to put it into place nationwide would surely bring some unpleasant and unintended consequences,” these voting experts warn.
One of those potential consequences could be confusion about who won the election. A big challenge for states ramping up their mailed ballots is how to count them in a timely manner.
Mailed ballots tend to come in waves, and many jurisdictions allowed ballots to be postmarked by Election Day. So you could have a situation where tallies announced by in-person voting and ballots returned before the deadline show one candidate in the lead, Morley, with Florida State University, said. “But you still have tens of thousands of uncounted ballots, and you are setting yourself up to potentially say: ‘Now that we finished counting the votes, actually the other candidate is the winner,’ ” he said. “In the context of a presidential election, that can contribute to mistrust.”
But a number of election experts counter that the delay in results is a small cost of doing mail elections in a pandemic. “This is not a speed game,” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R) told The Fix last month. “This is going to be an integrity and safety game.”