SciPolBites: Voting by Mail

Sep 08, 2020

SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, three members share their perspectives on the health consequences, accessibility concerns, and security risks associated with voting by mail.

Kat Cruz (@katherranne)

Vote-by-Mail: A Public Health Issue

Voting in person is a public health issue. CDC Director Redfield warned that this will be “the worst fall, from a public health perspective, we’ve ever had,” and Election Day will be right in the middle of it. All of the conditions of a normal Election Day: long lines, enclosed areas, and touch screens or shared pens create the perfect storm.

Voting by mail is in the best interest of the public health and safety of American voters. Conditions at polling locations may contribute to virus spread. Voters may be asymptomatic and pass through the temperature screening at the door. Social distancing may not be possible at every polling location. Even if counties were to consolidate poll locations to larger venues with adequate spacing, this will lead to fewer poll locations and an even greater congregation of voters. There is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread through the mail. Studies have shown that the virus lasts on cardboard for about an hour. There is no good reason to put voters and poll workers’ safety and health at risk when voting by mail is a safe option.

This November, Americans should not have to decide between their health and exercising their civic duty. Political fears against voting by mail are unfounded, as the fraud rate is 0.00006%. Before the pandemic, five states conducted their elections almost entirely by mail. In response to the pandemic, state and local officials from red and blue states have expanded voting by mail. This bipartisan voting by mail expansion and coordination with public health officials is the perfect example of how evidence-based policy can and should work. Only four states have maintained that COVID-19 is not a valid excuse for an absentee ballot. It is no coincidence that these four states have some of the lowest voter turnout.

Mail delays and COVID-19 fears may lead to one of the lowest voter turnouts in years. This is not just a presidential election. Redistricting is on the ballot. The communities hit the hardest by COVID-19 may be affected the most in redistricting, and coincidentally are the ones who need to vote by mail expansion the most.

Chris Jackson (@Chwistofu)

Vote-by-Mail: An Accessibility Issue

If there’s any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the number of ballots cast by mail in the 2020 election is predicted to more than double the number in 2016. This is good news, because for a large majority of the population, voting by mail is the safest and most secure way to cast a ballot.

However, that isn’t always the case. While COVID-19 is new, the barriers to voting that many Americans with disabilities have faced are old. As in many other areas, like education and healthcare, COVID-19 is simply exacerbating and intensifying existing issues that many voters with disabilities have previously faced. In 2016, one sample of 137 inspected polling stations found that nearly two-thirds had at least one impediment to voters with disabilities, despite ADA guidelines. This year, it may also be more dangerous for some persons with disabilities to vote in person due to underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

Voting by mail has the potential to help with some of these issues; however, it is not a panacea. For example, some persons with disabilities can only securely and confidentially vote with the assistance provided during in-person voting. To this point, (pre-COVID) studies have shown that the majority of people with disabilities -- like those without disabilities -- prefer voting in person. Therefore, in-person voting options must remain available, ideally in an expanded time window to limit crowding and transmission of COVID-19. While the expansion of vote-by-mail is necessary, lawmakers should equally support measures for safe and accessible voting options that are inclusive of people with disabilities, both in 2020 and in the future.

Bernat Navarro (@bnserer)

Vote-by-Mail: A Security Issue

People shouldn’t have to risk their health to participate in our democracy. This has been the main argument to provide mail-in voting for all Americans to vote for this upcoming presidential election. However, in addition to mail-in voting providing a safe and straightforward alternative to voting in person, the ramifications of implementing such a system should go beyond COVID-19 and public health concerns.

Currently, 5 states automatically send ballots to those registered to vote. A new study looking at how mail-in voting changed turnout in one of these states, Colorado, found that participation in elections increased more than 9%. Additionally, and most importantly, the increased turnout also occurred among those groups less likely to show up to the booth, including young people, people of color, and blue-collar workers. Lastly, mail-in voting helped close the income gap at the polls, with a bigger turnout increase in low-income households. These data should be encouraging for all states and for the whole country to implement a mail-in voting system beyond times when public health crises are a concern.

Fears of voter fraud and mail-in voting significantly benefiting one party have undermined the potential this voting system has for long-term changes. First, voter fraud, in general, is very rare. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice on this issue found that incidence rates are between 0.0003 and 0.0025%, and many are due to other errors and not impersonation. The list of studies addressing voter fraud rarely found incidences, and this has been backed by courts and government investigations. Importantly, mail-in voting could actually be safer against foreign interference than voting in person. Mail-in and absentee ballots provide a paper receipt and trail that can be used for auditing, ensuring the safety of the election. Lastly, recent studies have shown that the implementation of universal mail-in voting does not have a partisan effect on turnout or share.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of a robust election system that provides universal mail-in voting during an unprecedented public health crisis. However, there is potential for its effects to be long-term, providing an easy and fast alternative to increase turnout among all electoral groups. False claims regarding security and fraud only undermine the scientific principles surrounding vote by mail.


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