• on April 3, 2020

Vote-by-mail: You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.

In light of this global coronavirus pandemic, voters should not have to choose between exercising their right to vote and preserving their health. A recent Pew survey shows that 66% of Americans polled feel uncomfortable about visiting a polling place right now because of the COVID-19 virus. This is a serious issue as we are in an election year and it is unclear how long it will be until the coronavirus pandemic is under control. 

Some states postponed their primary elections, others will hold their elections in the coming weeks, and all states will be voting in November. Many experts suggest that expanding vote-by-mail may be one way that we can ensure our elections can continue in the face of this unprecedented challenge. 

Currently, some states are already making changes to allow for more citizens to vote-by-mail in their upcoming primary elections. And, while some may suggest that November is still months away and we do not need to worry about the general election just yet, experts warn that we must start working now to allow enough time to make expanded vote-by-mail possible. 

The clear benefit of vote-by-mail is that it allows voters to protect themselves and their health, while also allowing them to exercise their civic duty as a voter. With so many people talking about vote-by-mail we wanted to provide you with some answers to basic questions about what it is and how it works. 

Is vote-by-mail new? 

No. Vote-by-mail in the form of absentee ballots has been around since the American Civil War. Oregon and Pennsylvania allowed their soldiers to vote using absentee ballots in 1864. To expand voting for citizens overseas, Congress passed the Soldier Voting Act of 1942 and the Federal Voting Assistance Act in 1955. These two laws were combined in 1986 through the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), which strengthened the ability to vote in federal elections using absentee ballots for both members of the military and any American living overseas. In 2009, Congress passed The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act which expanded UOCAVA providing more protections to overseas voters. 

Of all the votes cast in the 2016 presidential election, nearly 25 million were cast using by-mail absentee ballots.

How does vote-by-mail work?

Voting by mail works in conjunction with normal voting procedures. Voters who would like to vote-by-mail receive their ballot in the mail several weeks before the election. Voters who  prefer to vote at a polling location are able to do so during early voting (if possible in their state) or on Election Day.

Why vote-by-mail is good for our country:

Vote-by-mail will improve the health of America’s democracy and is in no way, anti-American. Different forms of vote-by-mail have existed for decades, affording more Americans the opportunity to vote in the way most convenient for them. 

Vote-by-mail is beneficial during all elections but especially during an emergency or pandemic such as now due to the coronavirus outbreak. During this crisis, vote-by-mail will allow Americans to vote safely, avoiding large crowds on Election Day, and limiting the spread of this deadly disease. Americans should not have to choose between their health and exercising their civic duty on election day.  

During normal election years, vote-by-mail makes voting more accessible to people who find it difficult to take time off of work to wait in long lines and vote on Election Day.

Has vote-by-mail been tried before? Is it successful?

Voting by mail already exists in some form in all states. In states like Washington, Colorado, Hawaii, and Utah, all votes can be cast by mail-in ballots. In these states, voters have the choice to submit their ballot by mail or submit their vote in-person on Election Day or at early polling locations (if available).

In other states (Alaska, Arizona, California, DC, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming), voters can vote-by-mail with a no-excuse absentee ballot. Voters in these states are able to request an absentee ballot for any reason, but how the request is made and when they must request the ballot differs by state. In the remaining states (Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) voters can vote-by-mail through an absentee ballot if they have an excuse. The qualifying excuses differ by state as do the requirements for requesting an absentee ballot. 

Vote-by-mail is not a new or radical  idea. It has existed for years in some form in all states. Its long and successful history in the United States demonstrates it is safe and can be expanded across the country.

What are some of the concerns associated with vote-by-mail?

Some are concerned that vote-by-mail may lead to increased voting fraud. While voting fraud is possible in any election, safeguards have already been created to limit voter fraud in vote-by-mail elections. In Colorado, a computer program is in use which compares the signature of the voter on file with the signature of on the ballot. Because of this system and others like it, one cannot simply send in a ballot without being registered and having the correct signature. Signature matching is an imprecise science and some experts and organizations warn that many ballots get rejected because of problems with subjective signature matching. For this reason, it is important to ensure that voters whose ballots are flagged for a signature match issue, or any other issue, are notified immediately and given an opportunity to rectify the issue to make sure their vote can be counted. To help make sure every vote is counted, states should allow more time to count mail-in ballots.

Is vote-by-mail the only way to improve elections in the United States?

While vote-by-mail is a great way to improve elections in the United States, it is not a panacea to all problems affecting elections. Expanding vote-by-mail will help more Americans find the time to cast their vote while also decreasing wait times at polling stations and limiting the transmission of communicable diseases. However, vote-by-mail is not convenient for everyone. Vote-by-mail can be difficult or impossible for some citizens with disabilities, who are blind or have other vision impairments, and other special circumstances. To mitigate these issues, states should ensure polling locations remain open, while actively promoting vote-by-mail measures. When used in tandem, vote-by-mail and traditional voting measures allow the greatest number of Americans to vote, while limiting the transmission of communicable diseases.

Additional resources on vote-by-mail: 

South Carolina’s Election Commission Urges Governor, Others, to Consider Changes to Voting Due to Coronavirus

In a four-page letter, South Carolina’s Election Commission outlined suggestions to how the state votes:

  • Easier access to absentee voting: includes adding ‘no excuse’ as a reason to vote, allowing online application requests, and removes witness signatures for mail-in ballot returns. It also would expand the ability to access ballots online for healthcare professionals and first responders.
  • Vote-by-mail: the SEC would send ballots to every registered voter, allowing voters to mail them back or drop-off at locations before election day. Some polls would be open for voters with special accessibility needs, last-minute voters, and other circumstances.
  • Create early-voting in South Carolina for the first time: this would spread out voters over several weeks, instead of one day. It also would allow the SEC to open and maintain a few county locations, instead of widespread polling places leading up to the election.

Conservatives need to get behind vote-by-mail options in 2020 election

Michael Steele, chairman of the US Vote Foundation, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank write: “If staunchly conservative Utah can make the switch to vote-by-mail, as it will do this year, other right-leaning states should consider it. Such systems save money, do not require anyone to wait in line, do not require disrupting activities in public buildings and are essentially immune from large-scale fraud. Furthermore, many voter intimidation tactics become impossible when everyone can vote in the privacy of their own homes.

Even if conservatives do not want to go that far, the current emergency demands expanded use of vote-by-mail. Right now, indeed, democracy depends on it.”

Vote-by-Mail Can Save the 2020 Election: It’s a time-tested and straightforward solution, and the time to plan for it is now.

“The election is too important to let fall prey to this virus. Americans must ensure that the country’s democratic process moves forward as scheduled. And there is one time-tested and straightforward way to do that: nationwide vote by mail.”

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