Recently, there has been an increased push for universal no-excuse vote-by-mail (VBM) for the November 2020 election. Below outlines many of the numerous complexities surrounding universal VBM that any serious plan needs to address and provides recommendations to protect the integrity of mail ballots:
Federalism. Historically, election administration in the United States has been decentralized. Each state maintains the power to run its own elections according to the needs and desires of its constituents. Enacting universal VBM therefore could hamper state power to administer elections and could dangerously federalize the electoral process. Universal VBM could further limit state flexibility to engage their electors in the voting process, and a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach may impact voters differently in each state. Universal VBM would inevitably require states to amend their lawfully enacted election laws, which would require a considerable amount of time. Further, even if a nationwide VBM mandate is achieved, legal battles may arise where states fail to comply either out of defiance or incapability to implement VBM.
Recommendations: Any nationwide VBM mandate would need to allow states the necessary time and flexibility to carry out a system that adapts to the needs of their constituencies to avoid complications that could arise from a one-size-fits-all system. A universal VBM system would need to carefully define the power being taken from states in order to preserve state power to administer elections and prevent the federalization of the electoral process.
Infrastructure. It is important to evaluate the extent to which state election infrastructures could handle the transition to universal VBM if required for the November 2020 election. While nearly every state possesses some capacity to process and count absentee ballots, numerous states would need significant enhancements to their voting infrastructure, equipment, and personnel training to efficiently process a dramatic increase in mail-in ballots. Beyond the ability of the states to implement VBM, USPS and local post offices may not have the capacity to handle millions more election transactions.
Recommendations: Rushing to implement universal VBM would create more problems than it solves. States would need more than enough time to implement the necessary changes for VBM to work properly. This would include acquiring the necessary equipment to process ballots, ensuring there is adequate time to process ballots and give timely election results, and increasing staff to process an influx of mail-in ballots as election approaches.
Security. Mail voting is susceptible to fraud in a variety of ways. VBM creates opportunity for bad actors to put pressure on voters, buy and sell votes, request ballots on behalf of voters and vote for them without the voter’s knowledge, intercept voter ballots in efforts to cast them in place of the voters, request ballots and vote for ineligible persons, secretly and improperly process returned ballots, block ballots from being sent to voters, harvest ballots, and so on. Even more, there are important security issues VBM presents concerning voter identification and verification of ballots. Lastly, the extensive chain of command ballots pass through leaves VBM susceptible to breaches of integrity.
Recommendations: Any nationwide mandate should preserve the procedures states have in place to protect the integrity of mail ballots and provide for sufficient procedures to certify, verify, and authenticate mail-in ballots to ensure the integrity of the electoral process and mitigate influence from bad actors. Signature verification, which is used by many states, is a good identity verification step but has its flaws (it is an inexact procedure, and people’s signatures frequently change). To enhance voter identification in VBM, requiring identifying digits, such a driver’s license or state ID number, may be a better, more easily administered procedure.
Cost. It would require immense resources to get each state’s VBM infrastructure up to date with all necessary voting equipment to process mail-in ballots. If states are unable to financially implement the universal VBM program, states will disproportionately carry the financial burden of putting such a system in place, which could affect the security and reliability of the election procedures and results. Further, printing and sending hundreds of thousands more envelopes and ballots to voters would cost millions of dollars to local governments.
Recommendations: Any nationwide mandate would need to take into account the resources it would require for states to implement VBM. This includes the necessary equipment, training, and infrastructure updates for a universal VBM system to be successfully operate.
Public Confidence. Nationwide VBM has the potential to dampen public confidence in the voting process. Significant delays in election results can occur if mail ballots are not processed efficiently. Delays undermine voter confidence in the integrity of the election and creates a perception in the public eye that there is nefarious conduct occurring. VBM also dilutes the valuable election day experience of going to the polls. Lastly, a lack of administrative oversight can lead to widespread voter confusion regarding how voters are to cast their ballots. This confusion can increase the chances voters make mistakes that are detrimental to their vote being counted, and VBM provides little opportunity to rectify these mistakes in a timely manner.
Recommendations: To preserve public confidence, it is essential that any nationwide VBM program take steps to make sure ballots are received by voters well in advance of the election, implement procedures to prevent unreasonable delays in election results, and allow voters to track ballots to make sure ballots are delivered, returned, received, and counted.
Voter Engagement. Universal VBM has the potential to disenfranchise voters. Voters on Native American reservations and in rural areas often do not have reliable mail service, requiring them to travel long distances to pick up or drop off mail. Further, voters with disabilities often struggle with mail voting (and paper ballot voting generally). Certain voters may find it difficult to participate in VBM if they do not possess a mailing address. Lastly, universal VBM could change the makeup of the electorate because minority voters, who prefer voting in person at twice the rate of non-minorities, may fail to cast their ballot by mail.
Recommendations: Any nationwide mandate would need to take meaningful steps to keep voters, specifically minority voters, disabled voters, and voters who live in rural areas or do not have a mailing address, from being disenfranchised.
- Any nationwide VBM mandate should be strategically crafted to preserve the power of state and local governments to administer elections according to the unique needs of their individual constituencies.
- The US election administration system has been historically decentralized, and enacting universal VBM could hamper state power to administer elections and could dangerously federalize the electoral process.
- Nationwide election administration infrastructure would need substantial improvements to allow for universal VBM, and many states lack both the election infrastructure and capacity to implement universal no-excuse VBM by the November 2020 election.
- It will require a substantial amount of time to set up the election equipment and procedures to count large numbers of mail ballots. With the election quickly approaching, it may not be enough time in many jurisdictions to set up VBM.
- Any nationwide mandate would need to take into account the resources it would require to bring each state’s VBM infrastructure up to par, to acquire all voting equipment necessary to process an increase of mail-in ballots, and to print and send hundreds of thousands more envelopes and ballots to voters.
- If every voter voted by mail, it would cause tremendous stress on the federal postal system and local post offices. These offices may not have the capacity to handle millions more election transactions.
- Any nationwide mandate should both take care to preserve the election procedures states have in place and implement additional measures to protect the integrity of mail-in ballots.
- VBM allows bad actors to put pressure on voters, buy/sell votes, request ballots on behalf of voters and vote for them without the voter’s knowledge, intercept voter ballots in efforts to cast them in place of the voters, request ballots and vote for ineligible persons, secretly and improperly process returned ballots, block ballots from being sent to voters, harvest ballots, and so on.
- VBM hinders the secrecy of the voting booth, and the chain of command mail-in ballots pass through makes VBM susceptible to breaches of integrity.
- Sufficient ballot certification and authentication is necessary to ensure the integrity of each vote cast through VBM. Signature verification, which is used by many states, is a good identity verification step but has its flaws (it is an inexact procedure, and people’s signatures frequently change). Requiring identifying digits, such a driver’s license or state ID number, may be a more secure procedure.
- Observers and open/public processes are very important when mail ballots are being counted, both for the actual and perceived integrity of the election.
- Mail ballots, particularly if a state accepts ballots received after Election Day, significantly delay election results. Even if ballots are counted correctly and fairly, this delay creates a (media-fueled) perception in the public that something nefarious may be going on, thus undermining the public confidence in the election results.
- A one-size-fits-all approach to implementing nationwide VBM could disproportionately impact certain states over others and negatively impact voters as a result.
- Mail voting is hard for voters on Native American reservations and in rural areas, for these voters often do not have reliable mail service and may have to travel long distances to pick up or drop off mail.
- Voters with disabilities often struggle with mail voting (and paper ballot voting generally), and VBM removes election administrator supervision to address these needs.
- Universal VBM could change the makeup of the electorate because minority voters, who prefer voting in person at twice the rate of non-minorities, may fail to cast their ballot by mail.
- Voter mistakes on mail-in ballots are not easily rectified, which may lead to ballots being invalidated.
[Last updated Mar. 26, 2020]