IN BRIEF

Covid-19 and the 2020 Election: Voting by Mail

May 8, 2020

Voting

[Learn more about the policy defining the politics through Bloomberg Government’s 2020 Elections homepage.]

The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant impact on the 2020 election season. As states postpone primaries and both parties consider strategies for socially distant conventions, voters and government officials are wondering what should be done if the pandemic continues into November.

One solution some state and federal leaders suggest is to expand voting-by-mail options. Even before the pandemic, the concept was gaining steam. In 2016, according to U.S. Census data, about 20% of ballots were cast by mail.

Still, the United States is far from prepared to fully embrace it. Any widespread vote-by-mail effort will require a lot of funding and commitment from state leaders – particularly those whose states currently don’t allow for any absentee voting without an approved excuse. As the debate continues, we cover some of the key questions people are asking about voting by mail.

What is the current status of voting by mail?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five states provide mail-in ballots to all eligible voters – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C., allow no-excuse absentee voting. The 17 remaining states allow absentee voting with a valid reason, such as illness or a prolonged absence from the state around the time of the election.

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What are the pros?

A significant pro, if the Covid-19 pandemic continues further into election season, would be supporting social distancing measures. Voting by mail would eliminate the need for large crowds to gather at polling places. More generally, under normal circumstances, many voters appreciate the convenience factor of not having to make time to vote in person and having a longer election period rather than a single Election Day.

There have also been reported financial benefits in states that have implemented vote-by-mail systems. Research funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that voting by mail in Colorado saved an average of 40% in five categories – printing, labor, rental, postage, and miscellaneous.

Finally, proponents often cite increased turnout as an advantage of voting by mail. Research, however, has been mixed.

The MIT Election Data and Science Lab notes:

An early study of the effects of VBM [voting by mail] on turnout in Oregon argued that its implementation had caused turnout to increase by 10%. However, subsequent research has had difficulty replicating these initial findings. The safest conclusion to draw is that extending VBM options increases turnout modestly in midterm and presidential elections but may increase turnout more in primaries, local elections, and special elections. This modest increase likely comes in two ways: by bringing marginal voters into the electorate and by retaining voters who might otherwise drop out of the electorate.

A very recent example: In 2019, Rockville, Maryland, became the first location in the state to implement a vote-by-mail system. Voter turnout in the region’s municipal elections increased from 15% in 2015 to 27% in 2019.

What are the cons?

While ultimately there may be opportunities for some savings, there are many upfront costs. Just a few examples:

  • New machines to sort the ballots that are mailed in (or dropped off)
  • Postage, including return postage if a state or region chooses to cover it
  • Printing enough paper ballots to send to all eligible voters
  • Drop-off boxes and security measures to protect them
  • Ballot tracking software
  • Voter education measures

Additionally, voting by mail is a slower process than voting in person, particularly if ballots can be postmarked through Election Day. It may take a while after the day is over for ballots to be received and counted. And despite the general ease of receiving and returning ballots by mail, there are still parts of the country where mail delivery can be less reliable, or where people don’t even have street addresses.

Some critics, including President Donald Trump, have also expressed concerns that voting by mail unfairly favors one party over another. A recent analysis conducted by Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research, however, disputes this theory.

The study, released in April 2020, analyzed California, Utah, and Washington, all of which have vote-by-mail programs. The researchers concluded that “(1) vote-by-mail does not appear to affect either party’s share of turnout; (2) vote-by-mail does not appear to increase either party’s vote share; and (3) vote-by-mail modestly increases overall average turnout rates, in line with previous estimates.”

What needs to happen to scale up vote-by-mail operations by November?

Any large-scale vote-by-mail effort would require significant funding. The recent stimulus bill included $400 million for election preparedness purposes. However, states were left with a lot of freedom in how they choose to use that funding, with no requirements related to voting by mail.

Additionally, most estimates indicate that far more than $400 million would be necessary. The Brennan Center suggests up to $1.4 billion to ensure that a “vote-by-mail option is available to all voters.”

A group of academics from universities across the country recently formed the Ad Hoc Committee for 2020 Election Fairness and Legitimacy to provide 14 recommendations related to four topics: legal, media, politics and norms, and technology. Many of the recommendations are related to voting by mail, including urging Congress to provide adequate funding.

Because of the complications caused by Covid-19, voting by mail is becoming even more of a hot-button political issue than it already was. While Wisconsin’s messy April 7 primary has many state leaders seeking ways to avoid similar issues, President Trump has repeatedly expressed negative opinions about voting by mail.

Meanwhile, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have been publicly pushing for more federal funding toward establishing safe voting procedures in light of the pandemic crisis, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also expressed support for voting by mail.

As Bloomberg Government’s Emily Wilkins reported, a number of states have announced that they will switch to all-mail voting, including Ohio, Maryland, and Nevada, while others, such as Rhode Island, are considering it. But experts warn that it’s a process that is difficult to rush without negatively impacting voters.

Ultimately, the two greatest challenges for states seeking to expand vote-by-mail options will likely be funding and determining how to complete by November a process that often takes years.


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