We have taken democracy for granted. We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every year, in every day… – John Dewey
As the Covid-19 death toll surpassed 100,000 souls and the George Floyd protests spread to over 700 cities and towns, some politicians thought the timing perfect to vilify mail-in voting.
The global pandemic remains an existential threat, at least until it is “dominated” by our federal leaders. The law enforcement abuses that spawned so many protests over so many days underscore our society’s systemic racism and inequity. The pandemic’s disproportionate and deadly impact on minorities has only exacerbated the tensions crushing our communities.
Yet, somehow, some politicians are losing sleep about mail-in voting. What is it about mail-in voting that should worry us more than our health or livelihood? And why now, when our nation is on its knees and less than five months from a general election?
A Profile of our Election Systems
To answer the question, some context is needed. Mail-in voting—and its absentee voting companion—is not new. Absentee voting has been with us since the Civil War, first for overseas military personnel and later for voters with disabilities. In recent years, it has yielded more Republican than Democratic votes, usually with weak controls, especially in states like Florida. Fraud has been rare, with the most recent incident involving Republican ballot harvesting in a 2018 North Carolina congressional race.
Mail-in voting is but one element of our two-step electoral system: registration and voting. Registration is an eligibility system for determining who can vote. It separates the eligible (e.g., citizens and residents 18 years of age and older) from the ineligible (e.g., ex-felons in many states). Most jurisdictions update their registration lists by purging registered voters who no longer vote (under the theory that anyone who misses consecutive elections is no longer alive or residing there).
While voting procedures vary by jurisdiction, there are some important similarities. Most jurisdictions allow registered voters to vote in one of two ways: in person (on or before election day) and by mail (typically with an absentee ballot). Most vote in person on Election Day or during the early voting period before election day. Except for the five Vote By Mail (VBM) states, most states limit mail-in voting to absentee ballots. 28 states and DC allow absentee voting for any reason (no-excuse states) and 17 states require an excuse. It is estimated that 26 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail in no-excuse states (9 percent in other states).
Perhaps our election system’s most notable feature is its balkanization. Policies are set by 50 states and elections are administered by over 10,000 local entities. With election administration so decentralized, consistency is elusive, even in states with uniform policies. This decentralization has also made our election system more vulnerable to external threats (e.g., hacking), operational inefficiencies and higher equipment costs (three firms dominate the election system market).
Elections During a Pandemic
Since our elections have heavily relied on in-person voting (in most states), the pandemic poses a serious threat to our voting rights. Shortly after Super Tuesday (March 3rd), due to valid public health fears, several states cancelled or delayed primary elections, including Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Ohio. These states did not want their voters to risk their health by voting in person.
While mail-in voting has emerged as a safe alternative for those who want to vote without jeopardizing their lives or the lives of others, its implementation will not go smoothly without preparation. In Ohio, for example, state officials rescheduled the March 17th primary and opted to allow registered voters to vote absentee. However, the state was overwhelmed by absentee ballot requests. Nearly 2 million citizens requested absentee ballots, but antiquated processes and slow mail service prevented thousands of voters from voting absentee.
More recently, VBM (and with it the 2020 election process) has become a political football. Instead of working together to ensure a fair, safe and competitive election, some politicians are fighting to limit the availability of VBM. In Wisconsin, for instance, the Democratic Governor sought to make no-excuse absentee voting available to primary voters to protect their safety. Republican legislative leaders sued the Governor and won a judgment to compel in-person voting. The result? Long polling-place lines, the exposure of voters and poll workers to the virus and a sharp rise in preventable infections.
The political campaign to discredit mail-in voting is underway. At best, it tries to raise doubts in the name of “election integrity.” At worst, it makes reckless, unfounded charges about the incidence of fraud. Either way, the game is simple. By delaying the extension of mail-in voting—even by weeks—those hoping to suppress voter turnout can prevent or at least minimize VBM’s implementation for the 2020 election.
The campaign is not new. Many politicians have railed about the specter of fraud for every part of our electoral system—registration, registration lists, voting in person without a photo ID and now mail-in voting. But, as we have learned from the 2016 election, the greatest threat of fraud—by far—lies with our automated voting systems. Proven fraud has been scarce elsewhere.
If we think for ourselves, we can see that the hue and cry about mail-in voting fraud is a smokescreen. Another red herring raised by those whose self-interest lies in sowing confusion and discord. Another political distraction to hide the failings and motivations of our leaders and government. Such politicians may give lip service to democracy, but re-election is their only concern. Their political calculus is that, by exacerbating the divisions among us, stoking biases and blurring our vision, they can hold their offices.
We shouldn’t dismiss the potential of fraud. Rather, we should manage risk like most smart businesses do, with common sense. Instead of stirring up fears or shifting risks to voters, we should face risk rationally and reconcile it with our mission. Afterall, the risk of potential fraud permeates every aspect of our daily lives—banking, credit cards, on-line shopping, to name a few. We accept some risk in our daily lives because we understand that, to live an enjoyable life, some risk is inevitable and most risk is manageable.
The Real Issue
The question is not whether fraud is possible, but whether we will want citizens to vote during the pandemic. Our quest must always be to advance our democracy and increase voter participation. Our national voter turnout rates are low and our state and local turnout rates are even lower. With citizen alienation at historically high levels, we must make voting easier and more accessible, and in a way that minimizes fraud and preserves the integrity of our elections. Despite what some imply, we can do both. If we don’t, our democracy could be jeopardized for a generation.
The protests are not just about George Floyd or our criminal justice system. They are about injustices that contaminate every aspect of our public institutions, including our election system. Despite the 15th Amendment of 1870 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, there have been despicable efforts to disenfranchise minority voters—Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, poll taxes, poll watchers, threats and violence. In recent decades, we have witnessed less blunt minority vote suppression tactics—photo ID cards, shorter early voting periods, polling place closings and now mail-in voting—often under the banner of election integrity. The motivations may be partisan, but the impact is racist, pure and simple.
So, the real issue is how to increase voter turnout in a way that is fair, safe and reliable. For 2020, MBV is the best option. However, transitioning to mail-in voting this year will be no small feat. Mail-in voting can be problematic for some areas (e.g., Native American reservations and rural communities). And, even with an ample investment in ballot sorting and tabulation equipment, many jurisdictions lack the agility to change their election systems this quickly. It will take a lot of money and time to facilitate the transition, money and time that most jurisdictions simply don’t have. Expanding mail-in voting won’t succeed without thorough planning and preparation.
The federal government is the only entity with the power and resources to rescue the 2020 national elections. Thus far, however, the federal response has been disappointing, rhetorically and fiscally. The CARES Act allocated $400 million for states to invest in mail-in ballot voting and election security, an average of only $8 million per state. If the federal government doesn’t do more (and soon), millions of voters may have to do what voters did earlier this year in Wisconsin—vote in person (if they want to vote at all) and risk contracting the virus.
The November 2020 General Elections
There are several promising ideas for November, ideas that could maximize voter participation this year and provide a solid foundation upon which to improve future elections.
First, as citizens, we must exercise our civic duty to vote. Since the prerequisite for voting is registration, we must register to vote at our current address—now! If we cannot do it remotely, then we must do it in person (and secure written documentation that we are indeed registered to vote).
Once we are registered to vote, we must vote this year. If we have the courage to protest, we have the courage to vote. If we have an absentee or mail-in voting option, we should request the ballot now. If we have an on-line voting option, we should use it. If such options are neither available nor timely, we should exercise our right to vote in-person early or on election day at a convenient site.
Second, we should demand that our federal leaders enact federal legislation to ensure fair, safe and convenient voting for the 2020 election (and vote against any candidate who opposes this idea). This bill should include provisions for standardizing the 2020 federal election process, such as the following:
- Designate states as interim federal election administrators for the 2020 election, empowering them to implement the uniform federal election process for all local jurisdictions
- Offer fiscal incentives to encourage states to move all scheduled state elections for 2020 to 2021 and pledge to adopt fair, just and efficient election rules and procedures for the 2021 elections and beyond
- Design uniform ballots for national races (e.g., President, US Senate and US House)
- Expand election day voting for federal elections (e.g., increase voting hours, move election day from Tuesday to Saturday or make election day a federal holiday)
- Streamline voter registration processes to the extent practical for the 2020 federal elections (e.g., institute automatic and same-day voter registration for federal races)
- Develop regulations governing state and local voter registration lists for federal elections with sufficient controls to prevent wrongful purges of voter lists
- Modify the federal voting processes to make voting as convenient and safe as possible (e.g., extend early voting to at least 30 days, increase the availability of no-excuse absentee voting and adopt the American Public Health Association’s Covid-19 safe mail-in & in-person voting guidelines)
- Designate all postal offices as official ballot drop-off sites for absentee ballots (install secure voting drop-off boxes at all postal offices at least 60 days before the election)
- Develop, disseminate and publicize uniform election procedures for all national races
- Implement standard controls to minimize potential voter fraud (e.g., require a voter signature attesting to only casting one vote under punishment of law with severe federal sanctions)
This bill should be drafted with the collaborative input of a bipartisan group of election experts, including state and local election officials, public sector associations (e.g., National Association of State Election Directors, National Governor’s Association and National Conference of State Legislatures), ad hoc bipartisan task forces (e.g., National Task Force on Election Crises and VoteSafe) and nonpartisan institutes striving to boost voter participation and competitive elections.
Amidst the pandemic, it is vital to extend absentee ballot voting (mail-in voting) for the 2020 federal races. The best way to attain this objective in the next 90 days is to develop uniform federal policies and procedures governing the process. At a minimum, the process should entail the following elements:
- No-excuse absentee voting
- An aggressive outreach program
- An on-line request system with a standard absentee ballot request form, a year-round request period, adequate time for receiving and returning ballots and an expedited delivery system (e.g., email)
- The elimination or subsidy of postage costs for mail-in voting
- Secure, convenient drop-off boxes for completed ballots
- Well-designed envelopes for facilitating mail sorting and voter tracking (e.g., barcodes)
- Ample mail-in ballot mail sorters, tabulation devices and tracking equipment
- The early submittal and counting of mail-in votes (e.g., starting 30 days before election day)
- The counting of all absentee ballots postmarked by election day
- The deliberate reporting of election results (e.g., at least 72 hours after election day)
- Rigorous controls (e.g., require signature to matched against signature in person’s voter file) and severe penalties (e.g., five-year felony for harvesting absentee ballots)
The interim mail-in voting rules should be developed in a bipartisan, collaborative manner. And they should be crafted quickly, perhaps using guidelines from the states with the most MBV experience (e.g., Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington) as a departure point.
The federal government, in partnership with states, businesses and nonprofits, should launch a national public awareness campaigns to publicize the 2020 election process. Starting Labor Day, every citizen should receive weekly reminders—by text, email or postcard—of voter registration rules, voting options, absentee ballot links, polling places, candidates, referenda and relevant deadlines. Every time a citizen takes action, he or she should receive a notification of—and a thank you for—that action.
The interim measures recommended above for the 2020 federal elections can help us improve state and local elections for 2021 and beyond. Congress should fund a study of the 2020 elections to identify the best opportunities for improving election systems. It should then enact federal legislation to ensure fair, safe and convenient voting for future federal elections, including the interim measures plus the following:
- Replace the Voting Rights Act with a new law that will preserve voting rights for all protected classes and subject any potentially discriminatory state election laws or regulations to federal review
- Develop strong voter access standards, including criteria and protocols for situating, distributing, operating and maintaining safe, convenient and suitable polling places
- Fund a national program for recruiting, diversifying and training more election workers, perhaps as part of a new national service program offering volunteer service credits for election workers
- Implement a streamlined mail-in voting process (i.e., eliminate the two-step application/voting hurdle)
In addition, the federal act should offer substantial fiscal incentives to encourage states to modify the administration of future state and local elections as follows:
- Consolidate the over 10,000 election administration entities into 500 regional election administration centers (each center would be responsible for an average of 250,000 voters)
- Permanently move all state and local elections to an odd-year cycle (like Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia)
- Compress the election campaign period (e.g., limit campaigning to 90 days before the election)
- Standardize voter registration processes and cut red tape to maximize convenience for citizens (e.g., institute automatic, mail-in, on-line and same-day voter registration processes)
- Streamline the voting processes to make voting as convenient as possible (e.g., extend early voting to at least 30 days for all federal races and offer easy, no-excuse absentee voting to all voters)
- Incentivize voting (e.g., offer benefits like tax credits for voting)
- Simplify ballots (e.g., make secondary statewide executive offices like Agriculture and Labor Commissioner and county offices like Recorder and Sheriff appointed positions)
- Reform judicial elections to improve judicial professionalism and accountability (e.g., hybrid nonpartisan appointment-retention model with all supreme court, appellate court and district court judges appointed subject to retention elections after four to ten years and all lower court judges appointed)
- Recruit more election workers from untapped groups (e.g., teachers and students) and improve training
- Perform rigorous security assessments and upgrade voter registration, voting and tabulation systems to enhance efficiency, reliability and security
- Launch aggressive voting information campaigns (e.g., make grants to objective nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters to publish information on candidates and issues)
Many states will likely have to amend state constitutions, laws and policies. While some states will initially resist such changes, we can hope that most states will choose to accept federal support in return for making their elections more just, efficient and competitive.
The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation,
but rather in her ability to repair her faults. – Alexis de Tocqueville
These recommendations offer many benefits. In the short-term, making mail-in voting available to more voters will save lives, reduce the threat of hacking and improve auditability. And separating federal from state and local elections will simplify the 2020 elections, save money and enhance the nation’s ability to offer safe voting options. It also will enable incumbents (e.g., governors) to concentrate their time and focus on fighting the pandemic instead of running for re-election.
In the long-term, the recommended measures will increase turnout and reduce election day costs (Colorado saved up to 40 percent). Expanding other voting options also will enhance convenience, reduce polling place lines and maximize participation. Starting the tabulation processes for early mail-in voting will smooth election operating costs. Competitive elections will help restore faith in government and democracy.
These changes will require hard work. They will be resisted by defenders of the status quo. But, if we are to make our society more just, we must begin with our election systems. And we must be prepared to do the work that is required of us. As Frederick Douglass’ once wrote, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience working with governmental agencies across the US.
 While the 2018 mid-term turnout was up 12 points from 2014, it was still only 53%.
 This element would be unnecessary if we replace the obsolete two-step request/ballot process with the automatic distribution of absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.