The 2020 presidential election is already unlike any other America has ever seen.
Election officials are scrambling to figure out how they can safely hold in-person voting in a pandemic, and a record number of Americans are expected to vote bymail, a process Donald Trump has falsely said will lead to fraud. Because of the surge in mail-in voting, which can take days to count, Americans are unlikely to know the results on election night. There is already concern Trump will use the period of uncertainty to claim he won before ballot totals are final.
But is voting by mail really a threat to the election? We tried to answer some questions.
What is mail-in voting and why is it such a big deal this year?
Mail-in voting describes the process voters can use to cast their ballots without having to appear in-person at a polling place. Every state allows voters to cast a vote by mail in some form, though the rules around who is eligible to do so vary widely from state to state.
With the exception of a few states, voters are required to submit an application, and then once election officials verify their eligibility, receive a ballot. A handful of states – including Washington, Oregon and Colorado – automatically mail all eligible voters a ballot. This practice is often called universal mail-in voting.
Around a quarter of all of the votes 2016 and 2018 were cast by mail, according to federal data. But that number is expected to grow this year because of concerns about voting in person amid Covid-19. Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who closely tracks voter turnout, estimates mail-in votes will account for around 50% in November. And during the primaries this year, election officials in many states already saw an unprecedented surge in the use of mail-in ballots. In Georgia, for example, more than 1.1 million people voted by mail in the state’s June primary, more than four times the state’s previous record of 219,731 in 2018.
That surge is prompting a host of concerns about whether states are adequately prepared to hold the November elections. Many places are not accustomed to seeing high volumes of mail-in ballots and election offices – already on shoestring budgets and staffed by just a few employees – have struggled to keep up with the demand. Congress has allocated just $400m of the $4bn the Brennan Center for Justice estimates states need to successfully run elections.
Is mail-in voting different from absentee voting?
No, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Traditionally, people who requested ballots were called “absentee voters”, because they were likely going to be absent from their polling place on election day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
There are instances of absentee voting for military members going back to the American revolution, but as mail-in voting has become more widespread among the general public over the last 30 years, the terminology has become more flexible and states refer to the practice as both absentee and mail-in voting. Regardless of the term, the process is the same: a voter submits a request for a ballot and the election official sends them one once they verify they are eligible.
Donald Trump and the White House have repeatedly tried to make a false distinction between “absentee” and “mail-in” ballots. Trump has argued that “absentee” ballots, which he uses, are acceptable because a voter needs an excuse (such as illness or military duty) to use them while “mail-in” ballots will lead to fraud and are problematic. But 34 states do not require a voter to give an excuse if they want to vote by mail and incidents of fraud are still extremely rare.
Overall, 76% of Americans – 158 million voters – are currently eligible to vote by mail without having to provide an excuse.
If more people are going to vote by mail because of the pandemic, why have there been reports of long lines during the primaries?
One big lesson from the primaries this year has been that a lot of voters still are going to come out and vote in person. That may be for a number of reasons – a voter may request a ballot that doesn’t arrive by election day or they might just prefer to cast a ballot in person.
Figuring out how to accommodate in-person voters has emerged as a major challenge for election administrators. Poll workers tend to skew older and many have dropped out this year because over fears of contracting Covid-19. Facilities like schools and nursing homes that would ordinarily be polling sites may also be less willing to open to the public this year. That has forced election officials to drastically scale back availability for in-person voting – in Milwaukee, for example, the city opened just five locations during the April primary, compared to the usual 180 (the city was able to open many more polling locations for its August primary).
Figuring out how states can provide adequate and safe in-person voting is one of the greatest challenges election administrators are facing this year. Some places are getting creative; some professional sports teams are offering arenas and stadiums as polling sites to leave more space for distancing.
Will mail-in voting hurt Trump’s chances of being re-elected?
There’s no evidence that mail-in voting benefits either Democrats or Republicans. One study by Stanford researchers found that vote by mail does not benefit one party over the other.
In some places, Republicans have long used mail-in voting as part of their strategy to drive voter turnout. “It was a staple of our strategy,” said Mac Stipanovich, a retired Florida Republican political operative, told the Guardian in April. “Republicans probably ought not to be complaining about it.” Republicans in some key states, including Florida and Pennsylvania have encouraged their voters to cast mail-in ballots in recent months. Even Trump reversed course in recent weeks and encouraged people to vote by mail in Florida.
Trump’s opposition to vote by mail appears to be framed by a belief that increased voting will hurt Republicans. Discussing a congressional proposal to make it easier to vote in March, Trump said “They had things, levels of voting, that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
But does Trump have a point that mail-in voting could lead to more fraud?
Voter fraud is extremely rare and when it does occur, it is isolated. The same is true when it comes to voting by mail; an analysis of voter fraud cases maintained by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank, found 143 cases of criminal convictions involving absentee ballots over the last 20 years. That amounts to 0.00006% of total votes cast. A Washington Post analysis in states that conduct their elections entirely by mail found little evidence of fraud.
Election officials use several measures to prevent fraud. Some states allow voters to track their ballots, ensuring they can verify when it arrives at the board of elections. Election officials also compare the signatures on an absentee ballot envelope to verify a voter’s identity.
Trump has repeatedly pointed to an election in Paterson, New Jersey, earlier this year where four people have been indicted on fraud charges to bolster his claims, but those are misleading; he has claimed that 19% of the ballots were rejected because of fraud, but ballots can be rejected if a voter makes even a minor error in filling out the envelope it comes in.
What are the mail-in voting rules states are fighting over?
One of the biggest disputes over the last few months has been over how easy it should be to send someone a mail-in ballot. California, Nevada, Vermont, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have all moved this year to automatically mail ballots to eligible voters. Other states have opted to mail absentee ballot applications to all voters. In some places, local election officials are choosing to mail absentee ballot applications to voters, even if the state has opted not to.
The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee have staunchly opposed these efforts, falsely saying they will lead to widespread fraud. The campaign has sued California and Nevada to block the mailing of ballots, as well as local clerks in Iowa to block them from sending absentee ballot applications.
Democrats and voting rights groups have also brought a slew of lawsuits challenging restrictions around absentee voting, including requirements that voters provide an excuse if they want to vote absentee or get their ballot signed by a witness or notary. They argue these laws overly burden voters in the middle of a pandemic.
How can I be sure my mail-in vote will count?
Many states allow voters to track their absentee ballots, allowing voters to see when their ballots are received and counted. Experts are pushing for more states to adopt tracking mechanisms before November to give voters more voters confidence about the status of their ballot.
There are also high-stakes legal battles over the processes states use to reject absentee ballots. A mail-in ballot can be rejected if election officials – who may not be trained in handwriting analysis – determine the signature on the ballot envelope doesn’t match the one on file or if the ballot arrives after election day, regardless of when the voter put it in the mail. Research has shown that minorities, young and first-time voters are all more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected. Democrats have brought a number of legal challenges to require states to count ballots as long as they are postmarked by election day and arrive in the days after and to notify voters of any deficiencies before they reject a ballot.
Are we going to know who won the presidential election on election night?
Barring a landslide election result, it is very unlikely that we are going to know who won the presidential election on 3 November. There is probably going to be an influx of ballots that come in either on election day or in the days after, and it will likely take election officials at least a few days to continue to verify, open and count those ballots. In some states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, election officials are barred from beginning to count ballots until election day, which could lead to further delays.
There’s nothing fishy about this – it takes time to count mail-in ballots and election officials want to be careful they get the results right. But Trump has already laid the groundwork for contesting the results of the election, stoking fears about the integrity of mail-in ballots and suggesting the election could be stolen from him.
There is deep concern about what will happen during the period of uncertainty while those ballots are being counted. If Trump voters overwhelmingly go to the polls in person, he may hold a lead on election night, only to see it disappear as mail-in votes are counted. The Trump campaign and Republican national committee are reportedly preparing for a “weeks-long” legal fight after the election and readying efforts to get absentee ballots rejected if they lack postmarks.
What can I do to guarantee a free and fair election this year?
First, you should make sure that your voter registration is up to date and current. If you’ve moved, or need to register, you should take care of that now, just so you’re all set. Then, you can help your family and friends do the same.
Next, check to see how and when you can request an absentee ballot in your state. Many states already allow voters to request ballots for the November election (yes, really!) and requesting your ballot early will ease some of the burden on election administrators as they try and process mail-in ballots in the fall.
Lastly, if you are able to, sign up to be a poll worker. Having a reserve of healthy people willing to work the polls will ensure that election officials can plan to preserve adequate in-person options for voters who want to cast their ballots in person.