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Voting by Mail in the Age of Coronavirus: A Good Idea, but Not a Total Solution

We’ve been told to prepare for extended disruptions to everyday life. Large gatherings are canceled and “social distancing” may end up being the phrase of the year. So how might Americans vote under these circumstances?

Countless policymakers and political commentators seem all-in on all-mail voting.  U.S. Senator Ron Wyden proposed legislation on Wednesday to ramp up vote by mail availability nationwide and included $500 million to help jurisdictions prepare. It is unclear whether that amount would be nearly enough. Maryland legislators are considering whether it is feasible to move to all mail elections quickly. Former campaign and political party operatives and election prognosticators, among others, have added to the chorus.

Voting by mail is an important option for voters in a modern American election ecosystem. States that drastically limit vote by mail are behind the curve. These states should expand vote by mail availability to all voters. 

My guess is that voting by mail is going to spike this Fall. There are reasons, though, to be skeptical that election administrators have the time, resources, or capabilities to easily scale up to all vote-by-mail by November. If administrators are going to do it successfully, policymakers need to consider the following issues.

First, local administrators will need major technology upgrades and staff trainings. Some states do very little voting by mail and would have a difficult task of ramping up without these quick investments. In 2018, 31 states saw fewer than 15% of their voters cast ballots by mail. In those states alone, shifting from 15% voting by mail to 100% voting by mail could mean 70 million more ballots in the mail system this November.

There are five states that have mostly or all voting by mail. Another three states regularly see more than half of their ballots cast by mail. But these states moved to high vote by mail systems gradually and made key investments in machinery, training, and policy to ensure that voting by mail works well. The other 42 states plus the District of Columbia see far less voting by mail in a regular election and their training and preparedness reflect that.

In Oregon and Washington, the pioneering states in the world of voting by mail, election administrators either purchased specialized machinery to process mass numbers of ballots or contract with vendors to do so. Since vote by mail ballots need to be ready about two months before Election Day, there are very real challenges to making these upgrades everywhere else within the next six months. Nationwide expansion will be constrained by the limited number of vendors who could provide these services.

Second, there are several thorny policy considerations. One issue is ballot return deadlines. Even assuming that local administrators proactively send mail ballots automatically to all voters, 42 states plus the District of Columbia have deadlines for the return of mail ballots that coincide with Election Day. That means putting a ballot in the mail stream at least five business days ahead of Election Day, or October 28th this year. Other states require ballots to be accepted by election administrators days after Election Day. That will be a confusing message to make nationally.

States will also have to massively scale up checks to ensure voter eligibility. Administrators today compare voter signatures on vote by mail ballots to the signatures on file in the voter registration database, some of which were captured many years ago. For high vote by mail states, the process is largely automated. For states with far less voting by mail, it is a time-intensive human responsibility.

Finally, there is the issue of mail ballot processing times. In some states, pre-processing vote by mail ballots before counting —checking eligibility, opening the return envelope, etc.— cannot start until Election Day. It has been clear for several election cycles that states need more time to process the already increasing number of vote by mail ballots received. Though this delay may seem merely administrative, it will likely delay the public’s ability to know the winner of the election.

Just this week, Michigan saw a 97% increase in vote by mail ballots requested over the 2016 primary and that was before the first confirmed coronavirus diagnosis in the state. But the Michigan legislature refused to allow even one extra day of processing, which led the Secretary of State to warn that full initial results could be delayed. More mail ballots in the system would extend delays without changes to ballot processing laws.

Pennsylvania officials should expect to see an increase in voting by mail during their April primary. However, election administrators there cannot process the mail ballots until the close of polls on Election Day. Pennsylvania and Michigan just happen to be two swing states this fall where extensive delays in results reporting could be delegitimizing.

Election administrators will ultimately meet their voters where they are. If more voters cast their ballots by mail due to the pandemic, those votes will count eventually. But the calls to implement all-mail voting on a short timeframe in a presidential election cycle overlook real limitations.

Policymakers absolutely must ensure that vote by mail ballots are available to all voters. And they should provide the resources to election administrators to maintain in-person voting options for the millions of voters for whom vote by mail is insufficient.

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