To Protect Democracy, Expand Vote by Mail | Opinion

This year's primary elections, to-date, have served as both a high-stakes test of voting during the coronavirus pandemic and a preview of challenges that Americans may face in November. The results were unsettling: resource-strapped election officials struggled to handle a surge in demand for absentee and mail ballots, and voters—disproportionately black and Latino voters, according to reports—faced hours-long waits at polling places.

If this was a dry run for November's election, it was a very bumpy ride. It made clear that states still have a lot of work to do to prepare for a general election in which illness and social distancing protocols will create challenges at polling places—and in which record numbers of voters will likely try to cast absentee and mail ballots. It also should put to rest any disputes over whether states should expand absentee or mail voting during the pandemic. They must do so.

First, more and more voters are choosing to vote by mail this year, whether or not states change their voting rules. In 35 states and the District of Columbia, voters already had the option to vote absentee without an excuse. And in most of the remaining states, state officials have determined that the risk of infection provides a sufficient excuse to vote absentee, at least for the primaries.

The June primaries were the latest indicators that voters are indeed flocking to absentee and voting by mail in record numbers. In Georgia, 1.1 million absentee ballots have been returned so far, up from 220,000 in the 2018 general election. In Pennsylvania, roughly 1.9 million voters requested mail ballots—18 times the number in 2016. In Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio and Rhode Island, more than 80 percent of the ballots cast were by mail. Health experts predict that the coronavirus will linger well into the fall, so there's every reason to expect a similar surge in requests for mail ballots ahead of the November election.

Voters are choosing mail ballots for the obvious reason that they do not want to risk infection by congregating at polling places. It is for this reason that polls consistently find that supermajorities of Americans support having a mail voting option this year. And it is for this reason that states have an obligation to ensure that every voter who wants to vote by mail ballot can do so. No one should have to choose between her health and her right to vote.

And yet, even though the 14 states that voted on June 2 and June 9, along with the District of Columbia, expanded or promoted absentee and mail-in voting, most were unprepared to meet the spike in demand. In just one county in Pennsylvania, 6,000 voters were not mailed their ballots until the day before the election, giving them little time to get their ballots postmarked before the voting deadline. Thousands of voters in Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Rhode Island, West Virginia and D.C. reported requesting but not receiving absentee ballots in time to vote. Software issues in counties across Georgia may have left thousands of votes uncounted.

One consequence of failing to provide a mail-in ballot to everyone was unconscionably long lines at the polls in places like Atlanta, where votes waited from three to seven hours to vote—as well as in Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., among others. Some of this is due to the recent dramatic consolidation and closures of polling places. The failures to process absentee ballot requests on time, especially in some counties, were a major factor, too.

Disturbingly, these failures have disproportionately harmed voters of color. Black and Latino voters in Georgia, for example, had far fewer absentee ballot requests processed than did white voters. In state after state, voters of color waited in longer lines at the polls—compounding the significant racial disparities in wait times we saw in 2018. With millions protesting against racial injustice and demanding change, we need to ensure that those who are making their voices heard in the streets are also heard at the ballot box.

Put it all together and the conclusion is clear. States need to do everything they can to facilitate a massive increase in absentee and mail-in voting in November, and they also need ample and safe in-person voting opportunities to address the inevitable gaps.

These efforts won't be helped, of course, by President Donald Trump's fanatical crusade against voting by mail, which he claims is "horrible," "corrupt" and a guarantor of "[t]remendous potential voter fraud." There is simply no evidence for these claims.

(Nor is it true, as the president has claimed, that absentee and mail balloting favor Democrats. This may explain why Republican leaders in some swing states, concerned that the president's rhetoric could end up depressing GOP turnout in November, are reportedly telling their voters to ignore him on this subject.)

Vote-by-mail ballots in Washington state
Vote-by-mail ballots in Washington state JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

If there were evidence that mail voting is rife with fraud, it wouldn't be hard to find; much of the country already votes by mail. (Indeed, so does President Trump.) Every state has long provided mail ballots to a portion of its voters, including military and overseas voters. And in five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington—it has been the primary method of voting. In the last three federal elections, one in four voters cast their ballots by mail, including more than 31 million Americans in 2018.

And still, fraud rates remain infinitesimally small. None of the five states that hold their elections primarily by mail has had any voter fraud scandals since making the change. Oregon, for example, has sent out more than 100 million mail-in ballots since 2000, and documented only about a dozen cases of proven fraud. That's 0.00001 percent of all votes cast.

States have a number of powerful tools to ensure the security of mail ballots—tools that have been honed over time and enhanced by new technologies, including the mail ballot secrecy envelope, verification of signatures and personal information, bar codes, secure drop-off locations and drop boxes and post-election audits. Along with harsh penalties for anyone who attempts to commit fraud (up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines for each act of fraud under federal law alone), these tools provide election officials from both sides of the aisle confidence in the integrity of their systems.

Let's be clear: Millions of voters will cast absentee and mail ballots in the 2020 election, as the safest way to vote amidst a life-threatening pandemic—and they will do so whether states are ready or not. Preparing for this expansion of absentee voting requires large-scale preparation and money—the kind of money that only the U.S. Congress is capable of providing. In March, Congress provided $400 million to states to start making some of the adjustments required. This is only a fraction of the $4 billion that's needed.

Rather than arguing over whether to expand mail voting, we should accept that it is happening and do everything possible to make sure that states are prepared to run credible, safe and fair elections this year. The alternative is an election meltdown on an unprecedented scale.

COVID-19 is testing our democracy. By taking the steps needed to expand mail voting (while ensuring safe polling places) ahead of the November election, we can prevent it from also undermining our democracy.

Wendy Weiser is the vice President and director of the Democracy Program at Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

To Protect Democracy, Expand Vote by Mail | Opinion | Opinion