Over 75% of American voters will be eligible to vote by mail this November as states scramble to adapt to a pandemic in the middle of one of the most controversial elections in recent history.
by Breanna Beers
Is voting by mail a good idea?
The benefits of mail-in voting are obvious, especially during a pandemic: safety, accessibility and public health. But what about the drawbacks?
Myths around voting by mail abound, most notably the claim that mail-in ballots are a major source of fraud. Despite what the media or the president might claim, fraudulent voting is almost non-existent in the United States, let alone significant enough to turn an election.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think tank, reports only 1,298 allegations of voter fraud in total since 2000. Just over 200 of those were due to fraudulent use of absentee ballots. Even the highest estimates peak at less than 500 cases of fraud out of the roughly 250 million mail-in votes cast over the last two decades: 0.0002%.
That’s not to say mail-in voting is a perfect system. Mail-in ballots take longer to review and count, which led to massive delays in some of this year’s primaries. In some cases, results were not announced for over a month.
With all the scrutiny of a presidential election, such delays could mean pandemonium. The outcome of election night could gradually reverse over time as votes are tallied. In key battleground states, high-stakes, drawn-out court battles could ensue. The longer the election is prolonged, the greater the mounting tension, and the more invested each party will be to continue the dispute.
Government preparation and voter education are both necessary to mitigate these challenges, but they are unlikely to be completely avoided. It’s very possible that election day turns into election weeks. Given the current political climate in the country, those weeks could be a tense wait.
How will it influence the election?
In the past, mail-in voting has not favored one party over the other. This year, however, voting by mail is tied to a pandemic, and the pandemic has been pulled into politics as a tool for either side to leverage against the other.
While mail-in voting has not historically led to a long-term increase in voter turnout, it can give a temporary bump in public participation. Turnout in several states reached record highs during primary elections, and this increase is expected to hold through November.
According to political science professor Dr. Mark Caleb Smith, increases in voter turnout have typically benefited the Democratic Party, while Republicans are more likely to vote consistently regardless of broader circumstances. This effect may be amplified by the pandemic this year, given the generally higher degree of concern about COVID-19 among Democratic voters.
Smith said this may be partly why President Donald Trump has been so vocal in his opposition to mail-in voting: it could be perceived as a threat.
“President Trump knows his base of voters are going to turn out no matter what,” Smith said. “If people don’t turn out, it will more likely hurt Biden than it will hurt him.”
During a pandemic, mail-in voting may be the key to voter turnout. And in the eyes of some, it seems, voter turnout may be one key to influencing the election.
Why all the hype?
In the end, however, mail-in voting’s impacts on the election itself are likely to be relatively minor. Mail-in voting’s true value to the parties and pundits alike is not as an electoral influence, but as a rhetorical weapon.
Democrats claim concerns of disenfranchisement — lack of mail-in voting is equivalent to voter suppression. Meanwhile, Republicans cite largely unfounded fears of fraud, as well as the somewhat more substantiated concerns about chaos during counting. On both sides, however, mail-in voting is being considered only secondarily for those issues themselves. The rhetoric serves primarily as a loss mitigation tactic. It’s a scapegoat to save face for whoever ends up losing.
The fact that some states have implemented mail-in voting and some states haven’t means that all parties get to make all of these seemingly contradictory claims, whichever way the election goes. Mail-in voting increased fraud; lack of mail-in voting suppressed turnout. Mail-in voting gave it to the Democrats; lack of mail-in voting gave it to the Republicans. It’s a convenient excuse for whoever happens to need it.
Breanna Beers is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and citrus tea.