As with most aspects of our daily lives, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the administration of elections. Several states have already postponed primaries that were scheduled for this spring, and the few in-person elections that have taken place were marred by chaos. But with an election date of November 3 more or less set in stone, how can the general election be conducted safely if the pandemic is still raging in the fall?
Many officials and voters alike think the solution is to conduct the election predominantly by mail — but that’s easier said than done. Converting to a vote-by-mail system is arduous and expensive, and most states simply aren’t set up to smoothly conduct a mail election with their present resources and laws.
Currently, state laws on the use of mail voting are a patchwork quilt. Only five states regularly conduct mail elections by default: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Three more, though, do allow counties to opt into mail voting, and nine more allow certain elections to be conducted by mail — although these are typically low-turnout, local elections, a far cry from the 2020 presidential race.
Another 29 states (plus Washington, D.C.) give voters the option to vote by mail — also known as no-excuse absentee voting — in federal elections, but the burden is on the voter to request her ballot. The remaining 16 states still require voters to provide a valid excuse if they want to vote by mail, although this year, some states may accept concerns around the coronavirus as an excuse. (New Hampshire has already moved to do that for the general election.)
Additionally, several states may consider expanding the use of mail voting in November, at least if the coronavirus is still a threat. The secretaries of state of Arizona and Minnesota want to mail ballots to all registered voters in the fall, and bills to that effect have been proposed in Illinois and Massachusetts as well. But don’t hold your breath: There are some major obstacles standing in the way of states expanding mail voting.
What it would take to expand mail voting
To start, there’s the fact that mail voting has evolved into a partisan issue. Republicans, led by President Trump, are strongly opposing efforts to convert to mail voting, arguing it boosts Democratic turnout or enables voter fraud. In reality, most studies have shown that mail voting does not advantage either party, and voter fraud is extremely rare, both in person and by mail. Indeed, Republican legislators have already spoken out against the proposals in Arizona and Minnesota, and President Trump and other Republicans have said they will oppose national efforts to encourage election reform.
But the bigger hurdle may be logistical. States can’t just snap their fingers and pull off a mail election on a dime; election administrators with whom we spoke agreed that preparing for a mail election is a challenge.
First, ballots need to be printed in massive quantities weeks in advance of the election. The Brennan Center for Justice, an advocacy group that supports expanded mail voting as one way to insulate elections from the effects of the pandemic, recommends printing 1.2 times as many ballots as there are registered voters to account for the possibility of more people registering to vote closer to the election. That’s a tall order for any state, but especially ones that normally use electronic voting machines and aren’t used to handling large volumes of paper ballots. And then, of course, for every ballot, you need a corresponding envelope to mail it in — and, as elections administration expert Tammy Patrick told The Appeal last month, “it’s not like these are just regular old envelopes that you can go down to Home Depot and buy.” They must include instructions for the voter — which have to be thoughtfully designed to guide confused voters — and are often custom-ordered.
There’s also the burden of assisting voters with the transition. Since Hawaii enacted default mail voting last year, Rex Quidilla, the elections administrator for the City and County of Honolulu, said his office has had to significantly ramp up support services for voters, such as providing replacements for ballots that get lost in the mail. In addition, his office has invested more time in maintaining the voter rolls to ensure that each voter’s address is up to date — otherwise, she won’t get her ballot. And Myrna Pérez, the director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, recommended that officials hire public education specialists to assist with voter education. “People need to know that the election system is going to look a little different for them and what their options are,” she said. “[Election officials] should start working with local post offices to make sure that people know what to do with mail ballots, make sure they have tracking systems,” and other precautions to ensure no valid voter is disenfranchised.
Doing all that, while also stuffing and mailing out millions of ballot envelopes, is a herculean task — perhaps an impossible one for many election offices at current staffing levels. Earlier this month, Wisconsin election officials reported being overwhelmed by absentee-ballot requests and simply being physically unable to fulfill them all, which led to many voters never receiving their ballots. So mail voting also requires more staff. For example, Quidilla had to establish multiple new positions to coordinate all the new services Honolulu is providing to voters. Hiring and training new workers is a big lift under normal circumstances — but election offices in 2020 have the added challenge of doing it during a pandemic.
Then, when the ballots are returned, they need to be counted. For some jurisdictions, this means even more bodies: Armstead B.C. Jones Sr., director of the Baltimore City Board of Elections, said he has already enlisted some election judges to help canvass mail ballots for the two mail elections he is conducting this spring — a special election for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District on April 28 and the Maryland primary election on June 2. For others, it means investing in specialized equipment like high-speed ballot scanners, automated mail sorting systems and signature-matching software. Honolulu is one jurisdiction that has embraced automation. “We were already at a point where manually processing the returned ballots was just not feasible anymore,” Quidilla said. “We’re a jurisdiction of half a million registered voters; it would be very difficult for us to receive and verify all these [ballots] on a manual basis.”
And, of course, all this — from printing ballots, to ordering envelopes, to hiring and training new workers, to buying new equipment — costs money. That alone could thwart some states from switching to mail voting this year, such as Florida, where county officials say they just don’t have the cash to purchase necessary vote-counting machines at $1 million a pop. In March, the Brennan Center estimated that it would cost between $982 million and $1.4 billion to implement mail voting nationwide, with the biggest single expense being, simply, postage.
That said, a mail election isn’t necessarily more expensive than a traditional one, since mail elections save money in other areas. Jones told FiveThirtyEight that, while Baltimore did incur additional expenses by paying for postage on “both ends — going out and coming back,” he expects to spend less on election judges because they won’t be needed to staff polling places on election day. “There’s a give and take on savings and expenses,” he noted. “We’ll find out toward the end [whether the mail election was more or less expensive than usual].”
The outlook for mail voting
Given these challenges, you might think expanded mail voting has little chance of being adopted, let alone implemented, in any new states by November. While that skepticism is probably warranted, the pandemic is a powerful motivator, and universal mail voting is definitely closer to reality in some states than in others. Most importantly, experts say that states with at least some level of mail-voting infrastructure in place could more easily make the transition to vote-by-mail.
To better understand which states are most prepared to conduct the 2020 election by mail, we looked at the party control of a state (since vote-by-mail probably has the best chance of passing in Democratic-controlled states), in addition to how many of its registered voters were sent absentee/mail ballots in the last two federal general elections. By looking at both the percentage who received a ballot and the raw number who didn’t receive a ballot (a useful proxy for the number of additional ballots a state would have to mail in order to achieve full vote-by-mail status), we can get a sense of just how close certain states are to a world in which every registered voter is sent a ballot.1
Unfortunately for proponents of mail voting, there’s no state that does well on all three criteria that doesn’t already default to vote-by-mail. (Note how longtime vote-by-mail states like Oregon and Washington sent ballots to virtually every registered voter.) But there are some states where the hurdles may not be insurmountable. Based on the existing prevalence of absentee voting, Montana (where 63 percent of voters were sent ballots in 2018, and only about 260,000 were not) and Arizona (62 percent, 1.60 million) look like the easiest places to implement vote-by-mail; however, their Republican legislatures may lack the appetite to pass it. As we mentioned earlier, Arizona Republicans seem cool on the Democratic secretary of state’s proposal to make the switch. Montana, though, does have a Democratic governor who already steered the state’s June primary to a default mail election. And California isn’t that far behind either, having sent ballots to 54 percent of its registered voters in 2018. In addition, it’s completely run by Democrats, but its sheer size means around 11.48 million more people would need to be sent ballots before the Golden State automatically gives everyone the option to vote by mail — a daunting lift.
Far more states are starting from a position of negligible mail-voting infrastructure, however. A full 29 states (plus D.C.) sent ballots to fewer than 10 percent of their registered voters in 2018. Even many blue states that might be the most eager to switch to mail voting might find it challenging, such as New York, where only 3 percent of voters were given an absentee ballot in 2018, and about 12.35 million were not.
As for the states that could decide the presidential election, Arizona seems best prepared to switch to mail voting. A respectable proportion of Florida (25 percent in both 2016 and 2018) already votes by mail, but, as mentioned earlier, a lack of resources will probably prevent the Sunshine State from getting mail ballots in the hands of its remaining 10-11 million registrants. Michigan (where 15 percent of voters were sent a ballot in 2018, but 6.35 million were not) is in a similar boat, although a 2018 ballot initiative to liberalize the state’s voting laws could help grease the skids. Finally, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and (as we’ve already seen) Wisconsin have historically not had a significant culture of mail voting and would likely have a rough transition to a vote-by-mail system, should the need arise.
Any state considering conducting November’s election by mail should start laying the groundwork as soon as possible for the best chance of success. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s recommended timeline to expand the use of vote-by-mail starts in the first week of April — which was, of course, four weeks ago. “States should start working on it now,” Pérez urged. “The election is too important to not start troubleshooting now.” Jones, who learned in mid-March that he would have to conduct a mail election on April 28, concurred: “We could’ve definitely used more time.” According to Jones, Maryland did not start mailing ballots for the election until two and a half weeks before the election. “That could’ve been more timely, to give people ample time to work on them and get them back in. I’m still getting some emails that people haven’t received ballots.” But despite that, Jones thinks the benefits of vote-by-mail outweigh the challenges. “I just believe that mail-out ballots are probably the right way to go. We just need to tighten up the process and get it fine-tuned. I think it’s the way of the future.”