Interest in voting by mail has increased – because of anxiety over catching the virus from fellow voters. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five states currently conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. Essentially, absentee balloting for everyone. At least 21 other states have laws that allow certain smaller elections, such as school board contests, to be conducted by mail.
The process seems simple. For mail-in elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.
It may not be simple. There are plenty of trade-offs to be considered; some are quite consequential. We have put together a summary for you below:
|Ease of voting||The most obvious advantage is that anyone with regular mail service from the U.S. Postal Service at their home can vote without having to leave their home. |
Ballots are mailed out well ahead of Election Day. Thus voters have an “election period,” rather than a single day, to vote.
|Some people do not have street addresses, or their P.O. boxes may be shared. |
For those who are illiterate, mail-in voting has no advantage over regular voting.
|Turnout||Voting by mail can substantially increase turnout during mid-term elections.||There is no strong evidence that voting by mail boosted turnout much during presidential elections.|
|Voter suppression||The ease of voting will no longer depend upon polling places per-capita or distance to a polling place.||Governments can – and do – impose requirements that make voting by mail difficult: eight states require the signature of a witness in addition to the voter’s signature (Alabama requires two witnesses), three states require the voter’s signature to be notarized, and two states require photocopies of identification. Some states provide post-paid envelopes, while others do not. |
Voter suppression through the voter registration process remains a possibility.
Voter suppression can also be unintentional. The U.S. Postal Service has been under pressure from budget cuts for many years. Its staff is now under additional pressure from the coronavirus. Depending upon the USPS (or any other delivery service) creates risks: some voters will not receive ballots, and some marked ballots will not be counted due to lost or delayed mail.
Some jurisdictions have offered voters the use of ballot-tracking systems that allow a person to follow where his or her ballot is in the delivery and counting process.
|Ballot harvesting||Some states, such as California, allow people to help absentee-voters (or mail-in voters) get their ballots to the counting stations. Other states, such as North Carolina, make such help illegal.||Ballot harvesting can be conducted unfairly, helping only voters from neighborhoods known to support a preferred party, or losing ballots from voter neighborhoods not aligned with the preferred party. Several court cases have occurred as a result of such practices.|
|Ballot secrecy||Ballot secrecy protects voters from retaliation for “incorrect” votes and bribery for preferred votes. |
Under proper procedures, each voter is given a ballot without anything on it to identify them. This ballot is then enclosed in a sleeve or envelop that does include identification and line for the voter’s signature.
The two are meant to be separated at the counting location, with ballots counted anonymously and envelopes or sleeves used to verify legitimate voters and certify receipt of the vote.
|Ballot secrecy is not automatic. Procedure is important. Two examples illustrate the point. |
First, as of 2019, North Carolina law explicitly violates the secret ballot principle for absentee voting by mail: the state requires a unique identification code on each ballot rather than the ballot envelope as in other states.
Second, those states requiring witnessed signatures create opportunities for coercion. In essence, witnesses might refuse to sign ballots unless the voter chooses “correctly.”
|Fraudulent counting||Paper ballots that have been hand-marked by voters cannot be electronically hacked. Paper ballots can be examined and audited if there is any suspicion of meddling. |
Ballot envelopes can be barcoded for individual voters, allowing election officials to be sure that they are only accepting one ballot per voter.
In most states, absentee and mailed ballots are examined and processed in advance of Election Day, spreading out the workload and providing more time for scrutiny and to “get it right.”
|Thirty-one states require signature validation, but six states do not. |
Voting by mail involves envelopes, secrecy sleeves, and the actual ballots – each is an opportunity for partisans to try to negate unwanted votes. To protect against this, all handling of ballot envelopes, ballot sleeves, and ballots should be conducted in the presence of witnesses officially representing each relevant party or candidate.
Physical security is essential because voted mailed ballots are stored for several days and sometimes weeks until they are counted. Remedies include severe legal penalties for ballot tampering, only one storage location, security cameras, locks that need a bipartisan team to open, and logs of all activities relating to ballot handling can be part of this effort.
Some ballot-scanning machines can be hacked.
|Speed||Vote by mail elections may slow down the vote-counting process. This is especially so if a state’s policy is to allow ballots postmarked by Election Day to be received and counted in the days and weeks after the election.|
|Budget impact||County and state governments can save money on the recurrent costs of elections.||County and state governments making the change to voting by mail may incur high-one-time costs if they do not already own appropriate scanning and counting machines. |
Savings are not passed on to the USPS, which will have a higher burden due to increased volume during the election period.
Staffing and administrative costs go down, but printing and paper costs go up.
Online voting is another option. We do not cover that topic here except to point out some obvious problems: at least twenty-two million citizens have had their social security and other identifying information stolen, not everyone has access to computers, not everyone has access to the internet, and the internet can be hacked.
Please send us your thoughts. What did we get right, what needs fixing, and what else should we share?
Please help our first responders and service providers: practice social distancing, wash your hands, stay away from others if you are ill. See the CDC guidelines here.
All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-by-Mail) https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/all-mail-elections.aspx
Voting Outside the Polling Place https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx
The Pros and Cons of All Mail Elections https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/12/16/the-pros-and-cons-of-all-mail-elections-as-told-by-two-republican-secretaries-of-state/
Vote at Home Scale Plan (VoteAtHome.org) https://www.voteathome.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/VAHScale_StrategyPlan.pdf
The Absentee Ballot and the Secret Ballot https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/ viewcontent.cgi?article=1415&context=mjlr
Online Voting: Secret Ballot at Risk https://secretballotatrisk.org/Secret-Ballot-At-Risk.pdf
Disputed House race puts spotlight on ‘ballot harvesting’ https://apnews.com /211109ea75094be396ca9a229f169060