In 2020, as the Covid pandemic ravaged the country, the United States saw a significant increase in the use of mail-in ballot. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020, 46% of all ballots cast were through the mail, an increase from 25% from 2016. Concerns over mail-in ballot voting have been largely from Republicans who question the security of mail-in ballots fearing that the ballots may increase voter fraud across elections. After the dust has settled on a very long and dramatic election season and a new one begins, did and does the concerns over mail-in ballots hold water?
During the 2020 election, where an increase in mail-in ballots were much expected due to the pandemic, many prominent Republicans cast doubt on the security of postal voting including most importantly the president of the United States, Donald Trump. According to independent research done by the News21 there has been an increase in voter fraud cases in absentee votes done by mail. They report that there was an increase from 207 cases of voter fraud done while in-person to 491 for votes cast by mail in the 2000 election. Furthermore in 2020, 560,117 mailed ballots were rejected, mostly due to the ballots being late or improperly marked, but other issues included signatures that didn’t match and missing identification. Due to this increase of potential voter fraud from mail-in ballots some have cast doubts on whether they should be included in American democracy.
However, even though the potential for voter fraud may increase through votes done by mail, the actual event still remains pretty rare, whether that be a mere 491 cases of fraud in 2000 or .8% of ballots in 2020 (which is .6% decrease from 2018) being largely rejected due to confusion. In each of these cases the mis-marked or potentially fraudulent ballots were caught and reported, and the votes cast did little to impact the results of the race.
In fact, although some figures seem to question the confidence of postal voting for the sake of democracy, alternatively expansion of absentee voting may actually be a positive on American democracy. For one, the expansion of voting by mail in 2020 unquestionably increased the turn-out for the election. This may not be a one-off example, in a report by Bonica and Jefferson, looking at Colorado elections before and after an implementation of a new law that sent a ballot to every registered voter saw an increase of voter turn-out by an average of 9.8%. Bonica and Jefferson also point out the law improved the ability to vote for historically struggling groups such as the youth, poorer voters, and voters of colour. In conclusion, expanding postal voting is a net positive to involvement and ease of access in democratic elections, a net positive that outweighs the cost of a small increase in potential voter fraud.
With these massive benefits considered, it’s not mail-in ballots themselves, but instead the attacks on this pro-democratic institution that may be the most worrying encroachment on American Democracy. In 2020, 58% of Biden voters voted by mail while only 32% of Trump voters chose the same method. Combine this fact with the previous that mostly people of colour and poorer people benefit from mail-in ballots, which vote largely Democratic; it suggests that attacks on absentee ballots seem less about voter fraud and more about limiting voter access for Democratic voters. Consider that the largest attacks on voting-by-mail comes from the Republican party, who are currently engaged in several legal battles to limit postal voting for the upcoming midterms in 2022 in key battleground states. Although mail-in voting may be a new addition to democracy in many states, this strategy to limit votes by Republicans is a direct assault on the several valid votes done through the mail.
Another warrying aspect of this debate on the expansion of voting-by-mail, is that it exposes the growing partisan divide in the country. Like the elimination of property requirements for voting or giving women the right to vote, who can vote has always been a partisan issue. However, who has the access to vote should never be a partisan divide; ideally, all parties should support the notion of equality in voting as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the voting rights amendments of the constitution. Actively subjugating voting institutions to win elections is putting the party over the integrity of the institutions. It also demonstrates the increasing fear each member of a party has towards the other, has a common talking point amongst conservatives is that the Democrats are only pushing forwards voting-by-mail in order to gain more support and remain in power.
Even though concerns over security of voting are warranted, it is misinformation or a half-truth that mail-in ballots radically increase voter fraud. Instead, mail-in voting is actually a positive on United States democracy and attacks against it are eroding the institution.