Policy Spotlight: Vote-by-Mail
Texas should join the other 44 states¹ who plan to permit anyone who wants to vote by mail to do so. The most pressing reason for vote-by-mail is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, though it’s not the only reason. What kind of election will it be if people are afraid to vote? How will it be better if we have the mail-in ballot option?
The immediate need. Nearly two-thirds of voters say they would be uncomfortable visiting a polling place during the pandemic. Poll workers, meanwhile, are disproportionately vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, as they tend to be elderly (and civically noble) volunteers. Voters should not be asked to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote, nor should elderly poll workers be asked to risk their lives for the chance to serve the public.
Polling places would be less crowded if we could vote by mail – a convenience worth appreciating. Smaller crowds would also make it easier for poll workers to sanitize equipment and ensure proper social distancing. Beyond COVID concerns and convenience, nationwide the vote-by-mail option has generated higher voter turnout, and hasn’t been found to convey advantage to one political party or the other. That in turn supports public confidence in elections.
So what’s stopping us? The law and unfounded skepticism are holding Texas back. Under current Texas law, a mail-in ballot can be obtained only by people who will be out of town, are elderly, or who have a disability. In other words, you have to have a reason to get a ballot. What about the possibility that voting could cause you to contract COVID-19: is that a reason? A Texas state district court has already ruled that because there is no common immunity to COVID-19, we all suffer a “disability” for purposes of the statute. Therefore, the court reasoned, everyone is eligible to vote-by-mail. But our state Attorney General rejects the court’s ruling, and suggests that county officials who adopt the court’s view could be subject to criminal penalties (wow). The Dallas County Commissioners recently resolved to encourage it anyway (wow).
The legal argument may not be resolved in time for the July or November elections. We shouldn’t need to resolve it. The Governor can, and should, use his emergency powers to declare that all citizens may vote-by-mail this year.
Secure elections. It is critically important that people have confidence in the integrity of their elections. Is vote-by-mail secure? Consider that dozens of states, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, have been doing this for many election cycles. They can’t all be cavalier about voter fraud. To the contrary, experience nationwide has shown that if you get a running start, it’s not that hard to run a vote-by-mail program securely. Vote-by-mail systems across the nation are structured so as to reduce the potential for fraud to near zero.² Proven methods include physical ballot drop-off locations, informing voters how to complete and postmark their ballots, cross-referencing of voter rolls, bar codes, and signature verification.
The logistics. It does cost money to print and mail ballots. Fortunately, the CARES Act included election security grants to states for purposes of facilitating vote-by-mail, and the money must be used this year. (Something else that costs money: treating people who caught COVID-19 at the polls.) Money is less the issue than timing. It is essential that the state establish the framework in advance and get the ballots out on time. Last minute scrambles end in shambles. Elections are too precious to risk to foot-dragging.
Everybody benefits. Providing voters the option to cast their ballot by mail increases turnout, and does so without preference to any political party. It also allows for safer polling stations, and greatly reduces the chances that we’ll have insufferably long lines during early voting and on election day. Most importantly, though, encouraging and facilitating a broader turnout bolsters public confidence in the legitimacy of our elections and our government. That is essential during this pandemic.
It is time now for state election officials to get started in earnest preparing for a vote-by-mail election, and for Governor Abbott to clarify that we’re all eligible to vote by mail this year.
¹ As of this writing 37 states allow voters to request absentee ballots simply because they want to vote by mail, and of the 13 remaining states, 7 have signaled they will make an exception for 2020.
² In the 2018 election in Colorado, which conducts elections exclusively by mail, officials found reason to investigate only 0.0027% of ballots cast.