Campus & Community

Voting By Mail This November: Could It Work? How Prepared Are We?

Person mailing an election ballot

by Lindsey Cormack, Assistant Professor, College of Arts & Letters

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, House Democrats have called for legislation to develop a national vote-by-mail program. But the path to a representative and inclusive election this coming November begins with understanding the preparedness across the states — and the willingness of the 50 state legislatures and governors to act or not.

Every state has a provision for absentee balloting in some form, in order to allow for service members serving outside their home states to vote in elections, but individual states vary widely both in the ease with which they enable receiving and returning a ballot and in their preparedness to conduct elections by mail. Understanding how the states differ can provide insights into which states will be most prepared to conduct responsible and fair elections during a pandemic.

Political science professor Lindsey Cormack

 * Five states (Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii) already conduct elections by mail as a matter of course. These states enjoy some of the highest turnout rates in elections, and issues with ballot security have lessened over time as ballot-tracking systems come online that actually allow voters to track their individual ballots, akin to the way home shoppers track UPS or FedEx deliveries. Even if the pandemic stretches to November, 2020 will be no different for the voters and administrators in these states.

* Another 16 states allow some elections to be conducted by mail – usually after a local governing body submits such a request. These requests are generally permitted if an election is to be held on a day different than a general election; if the voting population is sufficiently small; for retention elections; or for other non-partisan elections or initiatives. While these elections are mostly smaller, they are scalable: if one locality serves as a proof of concept for the logistics of how to run such an election, lessons can be ported to other counties with sufficient state support. These states would still need to adopt policy changes to permit entire counties to conduct general elections via mail, but there is more capacity to implement such a change.

* Fifteen states have so-called "no-excuse" absentee voting options, which means a person can submit a request to receive and mail in an absentee ballot for any reason. These states certainly can count mailed ballots, and they have more experience than states that actively disincentivize absentee voting, but they will also have hurdles in converting systems now used to count a small percentage of ballots to one that can efficiently count all ballots in a general election. 

* This leaves 14 states without any history of mail voting and stricter requirements in place for requesting absentee ballots as the least prepared to adapt to a mail-balloting fall election. New York and Kentucky, both led by Democrats, have recently made temporary changes via Governor’s orders to allow for any voter to vote by mail for this upcoming general election.

But would the rest of these states be able to move to an all-mail system? A glance at the vote-by-mail preparedness map, placed beside a map of those states that have proven willing or unwilling to implement strict stay-at-home orders and business closures, reveals that the states most prepared to vote by mail are also those more likely to want to do so. And the states most unprepared are those that have already been more likely to resist or delay making changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. states vary significantly in their vote-by-mail policies

 These distinctions also correspond pretty closely to partisan preferences: 10 of the 14 states least prepared to vote by mail went solidly for Donald Trump during the 2016 Presidential election.

Given the very differing levels of preparation and different levels of willingness to adapt to the unique circumstances of this pandemic, we may have to turn to tech to help encourage our fellow citizens to vote this fall. In 2019, I assessed the efficacy of a peer-to-peer voter mobilization online platform called VoterCircle (it's now known as OutreachCircle) in increasing voter turnout in an all-mail election conducted in Menlo Park, California.

The results from the study showed that, for all types of people, receiving online encouragement from a friend did indeed increase the likelihood he or she would vote.

What does this mean? In a world where all we can do at the moment is electronically nudge one another, where door to door canvassing already feels like something from the distant past, all-mail balloting — supplemented by social media campaigns to urge greater participation — could help us foster a nationwide flowering of democratic participation come November.