How States Can Make Voting by Mail Easier and Avoid Election Chaos

Even states that offer absentee ballots to everyone need to increase capacity and make other preparations.

The November election may seem far away, and it’s impossible to know whether we’ll be operating under any kind of distancing guidelines like we are now. But the recent debacle in Wisconsin shows why states and localities should be preparing for voting from home. While pundits may debate whether the country should make the change, in the majority of states, individual voters can already choose whether to request an absentee ballot. The only question is whether politicians will be ready—or whether, if COVID-19 is still raging or has a second spike in the fall, they will oversee an election so chaotic that many Americans will view its results as illegitimate. 

Is it feasible?

Voting by mail is already a reality—in 2016, nearly a quarter of the electorate voted absentee. In about two-thirds of states, voters either receive ballots automatically or may request an absentee ballot without offering a reason. But even states that allow such absentee voting have never seen a demand for mail-in ballots like Wisconsin had. 

Wisconsin had more than 1.2 million requests for absentee ballots, five times the normal number The state was unable to mail the ballots out fast enough or handle the influx of secondary decisions needed—such as whether voters would still need a witness, even if they were living alone and under state at home orders. Meanwhile, poll workers dropped out in droves. This was predictable, given that across the nation, the majority of poll workers are over 60. Milwaukee had so few poll workers that it was forced to cut 180 polling sites to 5, and Green Bay had just 17 poll workers report for election day, leaving the state’s third largest city with only two polling locations and a line that stretched past midnight.

Voting by mail is going to happen in many states under current laws, so politicians need to begin preparing now to accommodate higher numbers of voters.

Five states—including Republican Utah, Democratic Hawaii, and purple Colorado—already hold all-mail elections, automatically mailing ballots to all registered voters, with just a few polling places open for voters who need extra help. Five more states allow voters to sign up for permanent absentee status, including big states like California and New Jersey, and rural states like Montana and Nevada. In these 10 states, enabling most voters to vote from home is a manageable change.

About 20 more states have no-excuse absentee voting and already hold some elections by mail; for instance, Anchorage, Alaska (where 40 percent of the state’s voters live), holds mail-in municipal elections. These states need to order enough ballots and make plans now with the post office to ensure speedy delivery. Ideally, they need to buy more machines to count the ballots quickly, and purchase signature-matching machines to ensure that all signatures match the ones on file. In some cases, they will need to alter legislation so that counting can begin before election day, so counts are not too slow. There’s no time to waste, but this can be accomplished in seven months.

Finally, in about 18 states, absentee voting is less common and more limited. New Hampshire just altered its policy to allow COVID-19 to count as a medical excuse, but has never held widespread absentee voting. In the others, if you are over 60, have diabetes, high blood pressure, or other pre-existing conditions that put you at particular risk of death from COVID-19, you are out of luck. A handful of states that require reasons for voting absentee allow any voter older than 65 to request one—but not in all. Places like Texas that allow municipalities determine election policy are likely to end up a patchwork of different rules. These states, including much of the South and New England, must begin preparing now. If they don’t, November is likely to be a debacle, leaving a country desperately in need of leadership with confused voters and contested outcomes.

States where absentee voting has been most restricted should not try to move entirely to a vote-by-mail system; it’s too great a change too soon. Incremental change makes more sense. High-density municipalities where coronavirus could spread quickly could enable no-excuse absentee voting or even mail out ballots. Rural areas could offer more drive-through locations. All these states should offer, or broaden, early voting hours to enable voters to space themselves at the polls. 

Is it fraud-proof?

Despite voting absentee himself, in Florida, President Trump keeps tweeting about fraud, and many voters legitimately worry about the sanctity of their ballots.

The good news is that fraud has been remarkably low in states that vote by mail now. Oregon, which began voting by mail 20 years ago, has had 12 proven cases of fraud out of 100 million ballots. The Heritage Foundation has been collecting cases of fraud and has found less than 1,100 over the last 20 years—but that’s out of about 250 million mail-in votes over that time period. Utah had a particular problem—parents were mailing in ballots for their 18-year-olds who were overseas on mission.

The fact that these parents and the one-off cases in the Heritage database were caught is testament to the security of the system. In fact, states that have moved entirely to vote-by-mail have some of the lowest numbers of voter fraud. Ballots have bar codes so that each voter can receive only one; signature matching software or trained professionals ensure that the signature on the ballot matches that on the vote. In states where the match is imperfect, the government must notify individual voters and allow them the opportunity for verification. Meanwhile, penalties for fraud include fines of up to $25,000 and years in prison.

Absentee ballots are subject to fraud—but it is actually lowest in states prepared with the technology for widespread vote by mail. It is in states where absentee ballots are rare and anomalous to the mass voting system where most fraud has taken place. In these states, voters who are usually trying to benefit a candidate collect multiple ballots for that individual, using pressure or filling out ballots themselves to ensure an outcome. In Texas, such “ballot harvesting” in nursing homes is explicitly banned, but it has occurred in New York, Georgia, and other states with significant restrictions on absentee voting. States that moved toward greater vote by mail systems and invested in the proper equipment to ensure voter verification would be able to better detect and prevent illegal ballot harvesting.

Another potential form of fraud that could be prevented by mail-in-voting is hacking. Many of the states like Texas and Kentucky that make voting absentee more difficult, also have electronic voting machines that leave no paper trail. A malicious hacker, or simply a software glitch, could alter many times the number of votes of a single ballot harvester—and with no paper trail, no one would be the wiser. Statistics might suggest something had gone awry, but there would be no way to reassure voters that their votes were counted correctly. Mail-in ballots would actually secure these states by reducing fraud, malicious hacking, and mistakes.

Witnesses and notaries are not necessary for modern mail-in balloting. Anyone who has used a notary probably noticed how unlikely it is that they would prevent fraud. Signature matching machines and ballot bar codes are far more effective, and far easier for people who are supposed to be sheltering in place rather than verifying each others’ signatures.

Is it partisan?

For many, concerns about fraud hides a deeper fear that mail-in balloting will unduly help one party. But the data is mixed for mail-in voting generally, and it is particularly unclear for the 2020 election. 

The states that have embraced broad absentee voting and vote by mail don’t break down along partisan lines. Red and blue states in the West have moved to these systems, those of both persuasions east of the Mississippi, less so.

The biggest demographic who vote by mail are the elderly, who tend to vote Republican. They are also the most likely to be scared away from the polls by COVID-19. However, studies of vote by mail in Colorado and Utah found increased turnout from the young, the very old, and nonvoters, benefitting, on the whole, no party in particular.

Usually, increased turnout helps Democrats. But Trump is no normal candidate—he particularly appeals to people who usually don’t vote—a group that votes far more frequently with mail-in ballots. In February, the Knight Foundation surveyed thousands of people who could vote but usually don’t. They found that increased voting would help Democrats win the popular vote. But nonvoters in a number of battleground states prefer Trump—and increasing their vote in places like Virginia where voting absentee is highly restricted could be decisive in handing him the electoral college victory.

Our voting system was not decreed by the founders. Absentee ballots started during the Civil War so troops could vote while away from home. Until the 1890s, there was no secret ballot. Only in 1925 did paying someone for their vote become a criminal offense. A one-time alteration for an extraordinary epidemic is hardly earth-shattering. But it could, in the face of historically low trust in government and in our fellow Americans, help ensure our democracy.

Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance program at the Carnegie Endowment and a member of the bipartisan National Task Force on Election Crisis.

Photograph of people waiting in line to vote in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by Kamil Krzacynski/AFP via Getty Images.