While voting has long been a partisan dispute, thanks to things like gerrymandering and voter suppression, the coronavirus pandemic has created a new issue over which Republicans and Democrats are fighting: a call for optional mail-in voting, to reduce the risk of spreading the virus further.
President Trump has already attacked the concept of voting by mail, tweeting, "Mail in ballots substantially increases the risk of crime and VOTER FRAUD!" Meanwhile, experts say voter fraud involving vote by mail is very rare. However, it’s possible that Trump’s antipathy toward mail-in voting is part of his general dislike of the U.S. Postal Service; he has recently opposed direct aid to the USPS. And so, it’s not all that surprising that he and the Republican National Committee are now fighting legal battles to prevent mail-in voting.
But, this could backfire on Republicans come November. Election experts agree that there’s no evidence that voting by mail gives one party an advantage, finding instead that voting is largely habitual and not based on convenience. As states have increased vote-by-mail options in the past decade, Republicans and Democrats have experienced small, but equivalent increases in voter turnout.
This isn’t that shocking. Vote-by-mail isn’t some exotic, new electoral practice; it’s been tried and tested for years. Almost 60 million Americans voted early or by mail and absentee ballots in the 2016 presidential election. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah — conduct all-mail elections by default. Both Republicans and Democrats have been elected this way.
There’s also broad support for vote by mail, even though it’s (predictably) divided along partisan lines: According to Pew Research Center, 70% of people support allowing anyone to vote by mail if they want to, including 87% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans. In a new Politico/Morning consult poll, almost 60% of voters nationwide said they support a federal law mandating that states "provide mail-in ballots to all voters for elections occurring during the coronavirus pandemic," including 77% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans.
The Democrat-backed HEROES Act, the most recent coronavirus relief package, proposes requiring states to send all voters mail-in ballots. The bill would also require universal "no-excuse" absentee voting, same-day voter registration, and expanded early voting. Democrats are seeking to allocate $3.6 billion to help prepare states for holding elections amid the pandemic. (The CARES Act included $400 million for this purpose.) The U.S. House is set to vote on it today, but it’s unlikely to become law. Republican legislators have pushed back on vote-by-mail provisions, saying they’d rather let states make their own decisions.
Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes told Politico all forms of voting need to be available in November, including "expanded vote by mail, significant early-voting opportunities, and then safe in-person voting opportunities on Election Day," he said. "We need all three of those things."
If vote by mail continues to benefit both major parties, then the question is really which party will do a better job of mobilizing voters to mail in their ballots. Right now, the perception is that it’s an issue both driven by and benefitting Democrats. It’s Democratic politicians like Sen. Kamala Harris and progressive organizations like NextGen America that are standing up for the cause. Unless this perception (and reality) shifts, Republicans are basically shooting themselves in the foot.
This pandemic has shown that the “normal” world we were used to, is not sustainable.— NextGen America (@NextGenAmerica) May 13, 2020
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