President Trump’s suggestion that the election be delayed is not only dangerous (because it reveals his authoritarian impulses) and ineffectual (he has no constitutional power to change the date), it perpetuates a great untruth that undermines public faith in our elections.
Namely, that absentee voting — which is effectively what voting by mail is — is somehow illegitimate.
Lest anyone suspect some partisan motive in our critique, consider this: We roundly criticized Gov. Ralph Northam — a Democrat – when he tried to move the May municipal elections to November.
In fact, those May elections in Virginia show exactly why Trump’s narrative about voting by mail is simply wrong.
Virtually every locality in Virginia saw a dramatic increase in absentee voting. In the town of Irvington, 92.8% of the ballots were cast absentee; in Louisa the figure was 91.6%, in Kilmarnock 89.5% — those were the three most enthusiastic absentee-voting localities in the state. Here’s what’s particularly ironic about Trump’s incessant complaints that increased absentee voting helps Democrats — all those localities we just named are strongly Republican.
In all, 20 towns saw most of their ballots cast absentee (usually by mail as opposed to showing up early at the registrar’s office). Same thing in 10 of the 16 cities that held elections. Absentee figures ranged from 76% in Fredericksburg down to 52% in Radford. In Waynesboro, the figure was 66.29%, fourth highest among cities in the state, behind Fredericksburg, Fairfax and Williamsburg. Would Trump care to come to Waynesboro and tell the city’s new mayor, Bobby Henderson, that he was somehow illegitimately elected to council? Did increased absentee voting help Democrats? Certainly not in Staunton, a city that lately has been voting Democratic. This year, with 62% of the votes cast absentee, a conservative slate swept to power.
And how many reports of voter fraud were there out of the May elections? None.
There are legitimate questions that vote-by-mail proponents ought to be concerned about: Can the Postal Service handle the higher volume? In Salem, 30 ballots came in too late to be counted. After the 2018 mid-terms, Roanoke Times columnist Dan Casey documented that 231 mailed-in ballots in the Roanoke and New River valleys arrived after the election and couldn’t be counted. None of those were enough to change the outcome, but we obviously run a higher risk with a larger — and more consequential — election. There’s also more opportunity for post-election mischief, with one party or another challenging certain ballots for picayune reasons, such as being mailed in the wrong type of envelope. Finally, there’s the question of how long it will take to count a larger number of absentee ballots — and whether “election night” will turn into “election week.” That’s a worrisome prospect — it’s better to get a clear, decisive result on election night, no matter which way it goes. We don’t need days or weeks of uncertainty. Still, Trump’s basic arguments against voting by mail are all demonstrably wrong.
First of all, this is not anything new. There are some legal differences in some states between voting absentee, voting early and voting by mail but the point is the same: We’ve seen a steady increase in people voting some way other than showing up on the traditional Election Day. In 2004, 20.5% of presidential ballots were cast before Election Day. By 2016, an astonishing 40.8% were, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The pandemic will likely hasten this trend but won’t create it: Election Day simply isn’t what it used to be. Election Day has really become Election Month. Or Months. Early voting begins in South Dakota and Minnesota on September 18. In Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming, voting begins on September 19. To speak of “Election Day” is to refer to something that’s rapidly becoming outdated; it’s really just the final day of voting in most states — and the night of counting.
Whatever the date voting begins, at least 22 states allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. These are a mix of red, blue and purple states, so this is hardly some leftist innovation. If anything, there’s a slight lean toward conservative states, because voting by mail is most popular in western states. Five of those states now conduct all their elections by mail — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Utah, of course, is one of the most Republican states in the country.
The leader in voting-by-mail is Oregon, which first started experimenting with the practice in 1981. In fact, it was a Republican-controlled state legislature that voted in 1995 to expand voting-by-mail to all Oregon elections — a bill that was vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor. Oregon voters eventually approved the measure via a referendum. Since 1999, every election in Oregon has been conducted by mail, which means we’ve now had five mail-in presidential votes there, all conducted without the problems Trump fantasizes about.
Trump is wrongly telling his supporters that voting-by-mail is riddled with fraud — it hasn’t been. He’s also wrongly telling them by that voting-by-mail helps Democrats. This simply isn’t true, either. Colorado’s first all-mail election in 2014 saw almost a complete Republican sweep in a state that’s otherwise been trending Democratic. Numerous studies have found that — whether you define it as voting by mail, or increased use of absentees, or simply a larger turnout – there’s no natural partisan beneficiary. Voting by mail simply benefits whichever party is best organized. In fact, a study by the Knight Foundation earlier this year found that if every eligible adult voted, “non-voters would add an almost equal share of votes to Democratic and Republican candidates” — but that they’d be distributed in a way that would help Republicans in the Electoral College. That’s because most of those non-voters are white and white voters have become the Republican base. Rather than trying to undermine the legitimacy of the election, Trump ought to be trying to win it — and one way he could do so would be through more voting-by-mail, not less.
The Roanoke Times
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