Protecting the right to vote has long been an urgent priority; coronavirus has made it an emergency. Vote By Mail is one tested tool to protect American voters’ right to cast their ballot—and to safeguard democracy even as communities across the US grapple with the pandemic.
With long lines, rooms full of people, and shared touch screens at most polling places, in-person voting may not be safe—during primary season as COVID-19 cases climb and come November when the virus may have a resurgence. With no safe option, voters, especially those most vulnerable to the disease, may simply opt out. All 50 states have declared state or public health emergencies and election administrators across the United States are desperate for ways to run their elections without endangering voters and poll workers—many states have already been forced to delay their primary elections.
But this is not a problem for voters in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii. Why? In these states, all elections are 100 percent Vote By Mail. Primaries in these states will proceed safely and smoothly—as will Election Day in November.
As Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden put it as they introduced legislation to provide voting options, including Vote By Mail, during this COVID-19 emergency, “No citizen in this country should have to pick between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health.”
“No citizen in this country should have to pick between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health.”
The good news is that all 50 states already conduct at least some voting by-mail. In most states, you must request a mailed-out ballot. Some states, however, make it more difficult to vote from home, requiring an “excuse” to request a mail-out ballot. Some states add another obstacle by requiring voters to notarize their absentee ballot. With Vote By Mail states to model from, there’s time for other states to ramp up these systems quickly, using the methods already developed and tested for securely mailing, tracking, verifying, and counting ballots.
Here are answers to frequently asked questions about Vote By Mail.
Voters receive a ballot in the mail about a month before the election and fill it out at their convenience. They either put the ballot in the mail or drop it at a secure location.
It’s sometimes called Vote At Home because it gives voters the convenience of filling out their ballot in the comfort of their home.
Every state allows at least some voters to Vote By Mail. You can see what your state’s rules are in the map below and find more detail here. In most states, you must request a mailed-out ballot. However, some states are making it easier to Vote By Mail this year.
We are in the midst of a global pandemic—the novel coronavirus is spreading around the world and it may be quite deadly. It can spread fairly easily from person to person, either because they touch the same surfaces or are close to each other and breathe in water droplets that an infected person has breathed out. In this situation, it is not safe for people to stand packed together in a line waiting to vote, or to mill around in the same room as they vote, or to touch the same surfaces as the sign in, or touch a touchscreen, or take their “I Voted” sticker from a poll worker.
In addition, nearly 300,000 American poll workers are people over 60 who are at special risk if they contract COVID-19.
Recognizing this risk to their people and the entire community, many states are delaying primary elections to avoid spreading coronavirus at polling places. But it is highly likely coronavirus will still be a threat in June, when most primaries are getting rescheduled, and likely even in November, when Americans expect to vote in the presidential election.
Fortunately, we have a tried and true solution: mail-out ballots, or Vote By Mail, also known as Vote At Home.
States get the most benefits when they move to an all Vote By Mail system. Five states already have All Vote By Mail elections, and in another sixteen states, some jurisdictions or elections are All Vote By Mail. This year, nine states ran presidential primaries completely by mail. We know from experience that in All Vote By Mail elections:
- More people vote. Vote By Mail (a.k.a. Vote At Home is one of the top three policies states can enact to boost voter turnout (the other two are same day voter registration and automatic voter registration, see more below on what policies pair well with Vote By Mail). All Vote By Mail places have voter turnout 5-7 percentage points higher than polling place-centric states.
- More people vote all the way down the ballot. Studies also show that voters with a ballot in their hands vote farther “down the ballot” because they have more time to research and become informed about the issues and candidates on their ballots.
- Elections are more safe and secure. Voters submit a paper ballot, which is more secure. The physical ballot can’t be digitally hacked or altered between the voter submitting it and the election officials receiving it. Voters can receive confirmation when their ballot is received and counted. Vote By Mail states have a complete paper trail of every ballot submitted, so they can review in case of any abnormalities.
- Elections are easier and cheaper to administer. States with All Vote By Mail elections spend from $2 to $10 per registered voter on elections, compared to polling place-centric elections that cost $10 to $16 per voter. The savings come from not having to enforce ( ineffective) in-person Voter ID laws, spreading fixed costs across more voters, reducing variable costs such as polling-place machines and workers, and handling voter records digitally. Although there are one-time transition costs, and places that use both Vote By Mail and polling places won’t see the full savings, full Vote By Mail is cheaper. Orange County, California with about 1.5 million registered voters estimates it will save $29 million by switching to Vote By Mail.
A well-designed Vote By Mail system is secure and safe from fraud. Everyone turns in a paper ballot, so there is no chance that a digital polling machine will delete or change your ballot. Here are some other concerns people might have about voting by mail:
You can’t vote more than once.
When they first hear about Vote By Mail, some people worry that people will ask for a “replacement ballot” and vote multiple times, or copy the ballot and vote multiple times. Not gonna happen. Ballot envelopes are barcoded to the individual voter. Only one ballot from any one voter will be counted—if the elections administrator receives additional ballots with the same barcode, they will be rejected as duplicates. They will also reject ballots that arrive in an envelope without a barcode.
If you misplace your ballot, you can contact your local election office and ask for a replacement. Then you can turn in that (one) ballot.
Only you can use your ballot.
Some might worry that someone else could steal the ballot out of their mailbox and use it to fraudulently vote. Again, states know how to protect against this. Best practice is to verify the signature on the ballot against an official signature on file for that voter. Election administrators can use machines specially designed to compare and verify signatures, or can use people trained in signature verification. If the signature doesn’t match, the elections administrator contacts the voter and gives them options to verify their ballot.
Plus, anyone tampering with a mailed-out ballot would face fines and jail time. In Oregon, it is a felony punishable by a $25,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
Non-eligible voters (such as non-citizens or deceased voters) won’t be able to vote illegally.
You’ll hear concerns that a voter could move or die, and their ballot would still arrive at their old address, and the unscrupulous new tenant could seize the opportunity to illegally vote. First, best practices in election administration keep their voter lists clean and up-to-date, ensuring that addresses are updated when voters move and voters are removed from the voter list when they die (see more below about ERIC). Modern, secure voter rolls stop ballots from arriving at the wrong address in the first place. In the exceedingly unlikely event that someone other than you somehow got their hands on your ballot and tried to vote with it they’d be thwarted by the signature verification process.
And, remember the steep cost of getting caught tampering with someone else’s mailed-out ballot.
It’s a crime to try to unduly influence someone else’s vote.
Some have raised concerns that an abusive domestic partner, caregiver or boss might threaten or bully someone into voting a certain way. While this is possible, it is a punishable crime. And hundreds of millions of Vote At Home ballots have been cast in the United States in the past 20 years, and it has never come up as a problem in practice.
Absolutely. Utah is a safely conservative state, and it now conducts elections completely by mail. As do Hawaii (blue) and Colorado (purple). Vote By Mail originated in Oregon and Washington. Both are blue states, but their Republican Secretaries of State (Kim Wyman in Washington and Bev Clarno in Oregon) support and endorse Vote By Mail.
In battleground Florida, mailed ballots have been a key tool for Republicans.
On the flip side, “blue” New York unfortunately makes it very hard for people to Vote by Mail, only allowing them to do so if they have an “excuse.” Same for Massachusetts (blue), Missouri (red), Mississippi (red) and a dozen others.
Yes. In general, Republican politicians have been more skeptical of Vote By Mail, fearing it might give an advantage to Democrats by helping more young people and people of color vote. However, one of the groups that benefits most from Vote By Mail is older people who have a hard time getting to the polls and waiting in line. That’s why in 8 of the 17 states that only let voters request to Vote By mail if they have an “excuse,” being older is considered a valid excuse.
States with universal Vote By Mail have seen an increase in voter participation. But that does not necessarily favor Democrats. Various reports suggest turnout increases could benefit either Democrats or Republicans. And Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “Election Meltdown,” notes that Republican voters, who skew older, may prefer voting at home and that, until recently, Republicans were more likely to vote that way than Democrats. In the current crisis, it is older people who are particularly at risk from catching coronavirus at a polling place. Republican decision makers should be on board with helping them vote safely and securely.
In Georgia and in Florida in 2012 and 2016, some counties rejected mailed ballots on the narrowest pretexts, and were more likely to reject Vote By Mail ballots from African-Americans than those filled out by white people. Unfortunately, those counties may have invited racial bias into their processes by using flawed methods, for example by using untrained workers to verify signatures, by showing signature verifiers the race of the voter, and by not giving voters sufficient opportunity to “cure” any errors by proving their identity if their ballot was flagged. The Campaign Legal Center and the ACLU brought lawsuits to ensure every American has an equal opportunity to have their vote counted, regardless of their race. Thanks to these lawsuits, some of the problems in Georgia and Florida have been ameliorated. For example, judges ordered both the Florida and the Georgia Secretaries of State to give voters a chance to prove their identity,
Most states use expert verifiers, a “blind” signature verification, and ample opportunity for voters to “cure” any problems, and they don’t have racial disparities in rejection rates. States ramping up their Vote By Mail opportunities should use signature verification best practices to avoid any potential for racial discrimination.
Americans with disabilities often face particular challenges in voting, from getting to the polling place, to accessing voting machines. Vote By Mail gives them the opportunity to fill out their ballot in their accessible home. Indeed, while people with disabilities generally don’t vote as often as able-bodied Americans, Vote By Mail elections close that gap, giving people with disabilities more equal opportunity to participate in democracy.
Native American voters living on tribal lands often have non-USPS-standard mailing addresses, making it difficult for them to register to vote in any state. But Vote By Mail states can allow them to designate a building on the Nation’s land to receive their ballot. Once these voters have completed their ballots, they can submit them like any other Vote At Home voter, either via USPS or in person at a designated ballot drop box temporarily installed on their land.
Eligible voters experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity can still Vote By Mail. These community members can have their ballots mailed to a shelter, park, motor home, or other identifiable location. Or they can list the county elections office as their mailing address and pick up their ballots in person there.
Yes, if they start now.
The National Vote At Home Institute, a national policy think tank working on implementing Vote By Mail in states, has an important guide to ramping up Vote By Mail options in 2020. They think states, especially those that don’t yet mail-out many ballots need to make some decisions about increasing the Vote By Mail capacity by April 15, 2020 in order to have time to do it right.
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In some states (dark green in the map below), all or most voters are already voting either by mail or early, meaning a small percent show up at the polls on election day. With some extra effort, these states can ensure everyone can exercise their right to vote without risk of infection. But in other states (lightest green), most people have to show up on election day. Those states will need to act more aggressively to make an orderly transition to virus-proofing their elections.
The first step is for 17 states to waive their requirement that voters have an “excuse” to vote by mail—at a minimum, every American who feels safer voting at home should be able to do so. Next, states could keep voters on their Vote By Mail list once they send in a request, making it easier on voters (because they’ll keep getting their ballots in the mail) and easier on election administrators (because they don’t have to waste time and resources processing a new Vote By Mail request for each voter each election or year).
We have more details here about best practices in implementing a Vote By Mail system. There are four main categories of decisions to consider:
- Voters. Is it easy for voters to register to vote and keep their registration up-to-date so they receive their ballot, to understand their ballot, to fill it out and return it? One important consideration here that 12 states get wrong is requiring voters to notarize or witness their ballot. With signature verification systems in place, this is unnecessary and burdensome, and counterproductive to keeping voting safe from contact that could spread coronavirus.
- Sending ballots. Does the election administrator have the necessary systems and equipment to print and mail well-designed, securely barcoded envelopes and self-sealing postage pre-paid return envelopes, to track ballots and notify voters of their status, and to assist voters in replacing their ballots if needed?
- Receiving and processing ballots. Does the election administrator have the necessary systems and equipment to verify signatures, sort ballots, and prepare them for scanning so they are ready to roll on Election Day?
- Counting ballots. Does the election administrator have the necessary systems and equipment to efficiently and securely scan the ballots and conduct a risk-limiting post-election audit to verify results?
If every state mailed ballots to every registered voter in November, that would be about 200 million ballots being mailed out. In the 2016 presidential election about 138 million Americans voted, so let’s say 150 million vote in 2020. In Vote At Home states, about half of voters put their ballots in the mail and about half drop them at a secure drop-off location, so let’s be conservative and say 100 million people mailed their ballot back. That’s about 300 million pieces of mail for an entirely Vote By Mail presidential election. That pales in comparison to the 2.5 billion (billion with a b) pieces of first-class mail the US Postal Service successfully delivered during just one week of holiday season in 2019.
That said, the postal service has been hit hard by coronavirus and requires emergency funding to ensure that Americans isolated at home can continue to receive mail, and that voters will be able to vote.
States can ensure more voters receive their ballot in the mail by making it easy and secure for eligible voters to register to vote. These policies include automatic voter registration, secure online registration, and same-day registration.
States can make sure they are mailing the ballot to the correct address if they keep their voter records up-to-date. They can do that by joining the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), an organization that compares voter records with other data sources, including postal change of address requests, and death records, to help states update addresses when voters move and remove voters from the voter list when they die. Thirty states plus DC are members.
For voters who need some extra help, states can allow them to vote in-person early (before election day), to spread out the crowds.
Finally, Vote By Mail pairs well with ranked choice voting. A ranked ballot gives voters the option to rank as many (or as few) candidates as they wish. If one of their favorite candidates drops out of the race before all the votes are counted, those voters can still have a say between the remaining candidates. In contrast, a “choose only one” ballot means that a voter’s voice is lost if their favorite drops out. Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Wyoming all ran by-mail ranked-choice presidential primaries in 2020.
The National Vote At Home Institute has a treasure trove of resources, including especially this plan to ramp up Vote By Mail in the time of coronavirus. They also have staff with election administration experience ready to help states implement Vote By Mail well.
The Brennan Center for Justice has an extensive report on how to protect 2020 elections from coronavirus.
Kristin Eberhard is a director at Sightline Institute. She researches, writes about, and speaks about climate change policy and democracy reform, with particular expertise on vote by mail and proportional representation. Find all her latest research here. Eberhard is available to discuss tested, safe, fair COVID-19 election practices, state by state. For interviews, speaking engagements, and media inquiries, contact Anna Fahey.