How the Focus of the U.S. Election Got Lost in the Mail
Matt Shaw
18 Aug

Postal voting is the latest in a string of partisan controversies. Derivative, using Joe Biden and Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

In less than 80 days, the U.S. will elect a new president, in the middle of a debilitating pandemic. Despite this, mail-in ballots, likely the safest option available to millions of people, are the subject of a heated contest that could determine how the nation votes.

Postal voting, or mail-in voting, has been around for some time. Some states, such as Washington, Colorado and Utah, automatically send residents ballots that they can return in order to cast their vote.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, some believe that postal voting could be a crucial tool in allowing members of the public the chance to have their say in the election.

Others, including the president and Republican lawmakers, disagree.

Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that widespread postal voting will increase cases of fraud and corruption, and even accused the election of being rigged.

Almost overnight, it became a controversy.

“It has become a partisan issue,” said David Kimball, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Mail-in voting has always had a hint of partisanship - Democrats usually favour it and Republicans usually don’t - but the tensions surrounding the 2020 election have transformed it into yet another wedge driven between the two major parties.

Donald Trump speaking to supporters in Phoenix, Arizona. 23 June, 2020. Image by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Much of the debate seems to come down to two persistent myths: firstly, that postal voting benefits the Democrats, and secondly, that it leads to fraud.

Both of these claims are misleading.

The notion that postal ballots favour the Democratic party seems to stem from the idea that turnout increases (meaning a more representative sample) when votes are mailed in, but this isn’t entirely true.

“Absentee by mail balloting doesn't necessarily increase turnout per se,” said Trey Hood, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

There are various factors at play where turnout is concerned. However, even in the event of turnout going up, Democrats aren’t guaranteed an advantage.

“There's been quite a bit of research on this in the last year or so and postal voting doesn't seem to help either political party, at least in elections so far,” said Mr Kimball.

“That's a widespread belief here, but the evidence doesn't seem to bear that out.”

A New York Times analysis drew a similar conclusion: Democrats can’t count on a higher turnout to win the election.

Joe Biden speaking at a community event in Henderson, Nevada. 14 February, 2020. Image by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ian Franks is the managing editor of 50 Shades of Sun.

What about voter fraud? President Trump has Tweeted that mail-in ballots will render the 2020 election “inaccurate”, “corrupt” and “rigged”, calling them a “scam”.

However, claims of fraud are dubious.

“There's no evidence that fraud - period - is rampant, much less absentee by mail balloting fraud,” said Mr Hood.

According to a 2017 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the overall rate of U.S. voter fraud is between 0.00004% and 0.0009%.

Postal voting, though arguably more complex than in-person voting, can be understood to be safe.

But it isn’t perfect.

“It's either labour intensive or it's expensive or both,” said Mr Hood, “Because if you don't have the labour, you're going to have to outsource to a private company, which is going to charge you a lot of money.”

Some states - especially those which have already implemented some form of postal voting - could handle the extra work, but others may not be ready.

A post office in Litchfield County, Connecticut. 12 October, 2017. Image by Alex Guerrero, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Concerns about the ability of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have also swirled in the debate, with Trump among those accusing it of not being up to the task.

“I think that actually is a fair point. The states that haven't had much postal voting in the past […] then ramping up postal voting to a large degree on short notice is a big logistical problem,” said Mr Kimball.

“In those circumstances, the common sense approach would be maybe provide some additional funding to the postal service,” he added.

The Trump administration has done the opposite, instead taking steps to undermine USPS.

All the while, the Tweets don’t stop, challenging the results of the election before it takes place and casting doubt on the democratic process.

“The president cannot delay the date of the election,” said Mr Kimball, “He cannot undo the count of the ballots. He cannot count the ballots [himself].

“But if he claims that it's a rigged election, he might appeal to legislators in swing states like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Michigan, where there are Republican majorities in the state legislature, and persuade them to simply award the electoral votes from those states to him.”

OPINION
How the Focus of the U.S. Election Got Lost in the Mail
Matt Shaw
18 Aug

Postal voting is the latest in a string of partisan controversies. Derivative, using Joe Biden and Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

In less than 80 days, the U.S. will elect a new president, in the middle of a debilitating pandemic. Despite this, mail-in ballots, likely the safest option available to millions of people, are the subject of a heated contest that could determine how the nation votes.

Postal voting, or mail-in voting, has been around for some time. Some states, such as Washington, Colorado and Utah, automatically send residents ballots that they can return in order to cast their vote.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, some believe that postal voting could be a crucial tool in allowing members of the public the chance to have their say in the election.

Others, including the president and Republican lawmakers, disagree.

Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that widespread postal voting will increase cases of fraud and corruption, and even accused the election of being rigged.

Almost overnight, it became a controversy.

“It has become a partisan issue,” said David Kimball, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Mail-in voting has always had a hint of partisanship - Democrats usually favour it and Republicans usually don’t - but the tensions surrounding the 2020 election have transformed it into yet another wedge driven between the two major parties.

Donald Trump speaking to supporters in Phoenix, Arizona. 23 June, 2020. Image by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Get The Locus sent straight to your inbox
Thanks for subscribing to The Locus!
Something went wrong. Sorry about that.

Much of the debate seems to come down to two persistent myths: firstly, that postal voting benefits the Democrats, and secondly, that it leads to fraud.

Both of these claims are misleading.

The notion that postal ballots favour the Democratic party seems to stem from the idea that turnout increases (meaning a more representative sample) when votes are mailed in, but this isn’t entirely true.

“Absentee by mail balloting doesn't necessarily increase turnout per se,” said Trey Hood, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

There are various factors at play where turnout is concerned. However, even in the event of turnout going up, Democrats aren’t guaranteed an advantage.

“There's been quite a bit of research on this in the last year or so and postal voting doesn't seem to help either political party, at least in elections so far,” said Mr Kimball.

“That's a widespread belief here, but the evidence doesn't seem to bear that out.”

A New York Times analysis drew a similar conclusion: Democrats can’t count on a higher turnout to win the election.

Joe Biden speaking at a community event in Henderson, Nevada. 14 February, 2020. Image by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ian Franks is the managing editor of 50 Shades of Sun.

What about voter fraud? President Trump has Tweeted that mail-in ballots will render the 2020 election “inaccurate”, “corrupt” and “rigged”, calling them a “scam”.

However, claims of fraud are dubious.

“There's no evidence that fraud - period - is rampant, much less absentee by mail balloting fraud,” said Mr Hood.

According to a 2017 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the overall rate of U.S. voter fraud is between 0.00004% and 0.0009%.

Postal voting, though arguably more complex than in-person voting, can be understood to be safe.

But it isn’t perfect.

“It's either labour intensive or it's expensive or both,” said Mr Hood, “Because if you don't have the labour, you're going to have to outsource to a private company, which is going to charge you a lot of money.”

Some states - especially those which have already implemented some form of postal voting - could handle the extra work, but others may not be ready.

A post office in Litchfield County, Connecticut. 12 October, 2017. Image by Alex Guerrero, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Concerns about the ability of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have also swirled in the debate, with Trump among those accusing it of not being up to the task.

“I think that actually is a fair point. The states that haven't had much postal voting in the past […] then ramping up postal voting to a large degree on short notice is a big logistical problem,” said Mr Kimball.

“In those circumstances, the common sense approach would be maybe provide some additional funding to the postal service,” he added.

The Trump administration has done the opposite, instead taking steps to undermine USPS.

All the while, the Tweets don’t stop, challenging the results of the election before it takes place and casting doubt on the democratic process.

“The president cannot delay the date of the election,” said Mr Kimball, “He cannot undo the count of the ballots. He cannot count the ballots [himself].

“But if he claims that it's a rigged election, he might appeal to legislators in swing states like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Michigan, where there are Republican majorities in the state legislature, and persuade them to simply award the electoral votes from those states to him.”

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