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An Unusual Election


In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts expect as many as 80 million mail-in ballots in the 2020 election. That's twice as many as 2016.

In a year defined by turbulence, one thing has remained constant: Americans’ belief that they should be able to vote by mail in Election 2020. Back in May, we reported that a USA Today/Suffolk University poll found 65 percent of Americans supported vote-by-mail as an alternative to in-person voting, while only 32 percent opposed the idea. A June survey by The Hill and HarrisX shows a slight uptick in public support for mail-in voting, at 72 percent. Other, more recent, polls show similar numbers.

State policymakers, who set the rules for voting in their jurisdictions, are responding to this sentiment. According to a New York Times headline from earlier this week, “A record 76 percent of Americans can vote by mail in 2020.” For context, according to Tim Harper from the Bipartisan Policy Center, voting-by-mail accounted for less than a quarter (23.7 percent) of all votes cast in the 2016 election, and 27 states and the District of Columbia had less than 10 percent of all votes cast through the mail.

For obvious reasons, those numbers are likely to explode this year.

According to The Times, 24 states and the District of Columbia “have in some way expanded voter access to mail ballots for the 2020 general election, with the broad goal of making it easier for people to vote amid a global health crisis.”

For most states, offering this opportunity did not require a huge overhaul of state law. Policymakers simply relaxed the requirements for absentee voting. As of this week, voters in 34 states can use fears about the spread of COVID-19 as an acceptable rationale for obtaining an absentee ballot. Another eight states and the District of Columbia are automatically sending voters an absentee ballot without voters needing to do anything but register to vote. Only eight states—Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—at this point still require a non-COVID excuse for obtaining an absentee ballot.

Those eight states still could alter voting. Indeed, The Times said, “more changes could be forthcoming through executive action, litigation or other mechanisms in a few states, including New York.” But for all the recent focus on mail-in ballots, it is of course not a new phenomenon.

According to a 2016 TIME story, absentee voting began during another national crisis: the Civil War. Paul Gronke, founder and director of the non-partisan Early Voting Information Center, explained President Abraham Lincoln “wanted to assure that he got the votes of the soldiers who were serving away from home.” For the first century of its existence, voters generally needed an excuse—like they were off in battle, for example—to obtain an absentee ballot.

It was not until 1978 that California became the first state to allow no-excuse absentee balloting. (As noted above, at least for this Election Day, voters in 42 states don’t need an excuse to cast an absentee ballot.)

Absentee voting is not the only way voters can avoid long Election Day lines, of course.

According to Rock the Vote, more than 40 U.S. states and the District of Columbia will allow in-person early voting this year. While early voting has been expanded in recent years, there is historical precedent. According to University of Florida professor Michael P. McDonald, “At the founding, voting was held over several days so that rural voters could have ample time to travel to town and county courthouses to cast their ballots.” That lasted in some form until 1845 when “the federal government set a uniform, single day for voting for president: the familiar first Tuesday following the first Monday in November.” One reason for that move? “it would prevent people from crossing state lines to vote more than once.”

In modern times, the idea of early voting grew out of the proliferation in absentee balloting. If you could cast your ballot in absentia before Election Day, why not at the courthouse or other location?

In 1988, Texas became the first state to allow in-person early voting. According to ProjectVote.org, in the 1990s the practice spread to Oklahoma, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Nevada. By 2010, more than 50 percent of voters in states with early in-person voting were going to the polls before Election Day.

Less than 10 years after Texas’ bold move, one state in the Pacific Northwest went even further. As Oregon Public Broadcasting notes, in 1995 Oregon became the first state to conduct a federal primary election entirely by mail. Then, in 1998, Oregonians overwhelmingly voted to expand mail-in voting to primary and general elections, and, two years later, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to conduct a presidential election by mail-in ballot. Washington state followed in 2011 and Colorado in 2013.

Today those states, along with Hawaii and Utah, conduct most of their balloting in all elections by mail. (According the National Council for State Legislatures, 21 states allow mail-in voting for some elections.)

While changes in how voters cast ballots have been afoot for nearly four decades, this year has been significant. Alex Padilla, California secretary of state and chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told The New York Times, “I have a hard time looking back at history and finding an election where there was this significant of a change to how elections are administered in this short a time period.” (It is worth noting that most of the changes outlined above are temporary. Pandemic voting does not necessarily foreshadow what we’ll see in future election cycles.)

But what impact will expanded absentee and early voting have? If recent state primaries are a guide, this year’s changes could raise voter turnout. As The Times reported, “Of the states that have held presidential primaries and caucuses this year, 31 saw an increase in turnout compared with 2016. Of those, 18 had sent either ballots or ballot applications to all voters ahead of the primaries.” Not convinced the increased turnout isn’t simply a function of a more engaged electorate? There’s also this: “Six states continued to require voters to have a reason other than the virus in order to vote absentee in the primaries. In those states, voter turnout stayed roughly the same as 2016.”

Just how many ballots could be cast by mail this year? According to The New York Times, “If recent election trends hold and turnout increases, as experts predict, roughly 80 million mail ballots will flood election offices this fall, more than double the number that were returned in 2016.”

Some voters, of course, are worried that their votes will not be counted under a mail-in balloting system. Indeed, in recent state primaries, including in California, Florida, Kentucky, and Wisconsin, higher numbers of absentee ballots have been rejected. Rick Hasen, election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, told NBC News, “I’m quite worried that there’s going to be many voters disenfranchised for inadvertent noncompliance with absentee ballot rules.” Hasen noted that studies show minority voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected than white voters.

Additionally, counting those votes will not be easy—especially since many states actually cannot legally start processing absentee ballots until the date of the election. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, for example, in the battleground state of Florida, election officials can at least start verifying the signatures on absentee ballots starting 22 days before Election Day. That preparation will help the actual vote county proceed more quickly. But up north in the purple state of Michigan? Vote processing and counting can only begin on Election Day. New Hampshire law is even more onerous: election workers can only begin to process absentee ballots at 1 p.m. on Election Day, or, in some special circumstances, a bit earlier in the day, but “no earlier than two hours after the opening of the polls.”

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Harper notes that while “states that have expanded voting by mail” they “have also failed to address” the related issue of vote processing. Harper has argued, “Without extending the time available for election officials to process absentee ballots in advance of Election Day, initial results tallies could be delayed by days.” And, as the Federal Voting Assistance Program has reminded Americans, “In a close election, the media reports that the outcome cannot be announced until after the absentee ballots are counted.”

In other words: it’s entirely possible that we won’t know the winner of the presidential race on election night.

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