There is growing concern among election officials and experts that the increasingly partisan debate around voting by mail could sow doubt in the results of the presidential election.
For months, President Donald Trump has been one of the loudest opponents to vote by mail, which experts agree is a safe alternative to in-person voting during the novel coronavirus outbreak. There is little evidence it leads to voter fraud or benefits one party over another.
“Mail-in ballots are a very dangerous thing,” Trump told reporters last month, despite evidence to the contrary. “They’re subject to massive fraud.” Trump has voted by mail several times, including in Florida’s primary earlier this year.
By attacking mail-in voting with unsubstantiated claims, some officials and experts fear, the president’s outbursts could threaten the integrity of the general election by dissuading voters from participating and diminishing Americans’ trust in the legitimacy of the results.
His narrative has consequences, said Marian Schneider, president of the election security nonprofit Verified Voting. It could lead to some Americans doubting the outcome of the November election, she said.
Because of an expected surge in mail-in ballots, election officials will need more time to count ballots, which could delay the final results, she said. Add to that months of partisan attacks on the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and the country could be heading for trouble.
“The narrative that sows doubt in the election results is very destructive to our democracy as a whole,” Schneider said. “It undermines the democratic institution of voting.”
There is a troubling partisan pattern developing over this issue, said Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. Partisanship could complicate the work of state and local election officials preparing for November.
“When you add on top of these administrative challenges that we’re operating in a charged partisan environment,” he said, “I’m really worried.”
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Both liberal and conservative states have expanded access to mail-in voting ahead of November and received record numbers of absentee ballots in their recent primaries. Utah, which is one of the most conservative states in the country, will conduct November’s election entirely by mail. So will Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington state.
Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans have offered support for voting by mail.
The partisan rancor over mail-in ballots has been frustrating and unfortunate, said Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state from Kentucky who continues to advise the state on its election policies. In normal times, he would not support an expansion of a vote-by-mail system. But these aren’t normal times.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” said Grayson, who now serves on the bipartisan National Task Force on Election Crises, an organization that came together recently to game out how to ensure a fair election this November, given Trump’s actions and outbursts on election access.
“We have to think differently. We have to work together.”
At the county level, GOP election officials in Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Ohio have encouraged voters to cast absentee ballots by mail.
But Republican state lawmakers in Arizona, Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico and Virginia have followed Trump’s lead and opposed any expansion of mail-in voting in their states.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, retweeted Trump’s criticism of states that run entire elections by mail, saying his state would not support such a move.
Still, Alabama has expanded access to mail-in voting, allowing voters to list COVID-19 as an excuse to cast an absentee ballot. The state also is working to provide voters safe in-person options, Merrill said.
Merrill told Stateline he has received criticism from voting rights advocates and members of the media who think his state should adopt a Colorado-like system, which he said is not realistic to implement months before the presidential election, nor what Alabamians want.
“The biggest frustration has not been from our people,” he said, “but from people who are not from Alabama and trying to get in our business and tell us how to do things.”
Alabama is one of several states the League of Women Voters sued over its mail-in ballot policies. The group is hoping to remove some barriers before November, such as the state’s voter ID and notary requirements for absentee ballots. While he wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit, Merrill said he is confident courts will uphold Alabama’s voting laws.
The lawsuits go both ways. After California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, recently announced the state would send ballots to every registered voter ahead of the November general election, the Republican National Committee sued the state, calling the expansion of absentee voting an “illegal power grab.”
Seeing this partisan divide and an increase in disinformation over allegations of widespread fraud, several organizations have launched education efforts surrounding voting by mail.
All Voting is Local — a project of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Leadership Conference Education Fund that helps register people of color and young people — this week will call 124,000 Michiganders through phone banks. It also sent text messages to 521,000 Michigan voters.
The state, for the first time, will send every voter an application for a mail-in ballot for August and November elections. The project wants to ensure voters understand that process and ignore partisan misinformation.
“We want to dispel the myth that their vote doesn’t count,” said Aghogho Edevbie, the project’s director in Michigan. “It does. There’s no reason to state that this is something that can’t be trusted, when it can be trusted.”
Last week, a nonpartisan coalition — the American Public Health Association, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, the Center for Civic Design and We Can Vote — issued state-specific guides to safe mail-in and in-person voting amid COVID-19.
“We are taking the politics out of this and protecting every eligible American’s right to vote,” said Jessica Barba Brown, a senior adviser for We Can Vote, a project of the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, which advocates for automatic voter registration.
In addition to the work of nonprofits, states and counties can implement their own tools to rein in confusion and assist voters participating in a new, unfamiliar process, said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, which advocates for mail-in voting.
McReynolds said states must maintain accurate voter registration lists to efficiently send absentee ballots or ballot applications to voters. They also need to invest in ballot tracking services that allow voters to follow their ballot from their mailbox to the county election office.
“This helps with confidence,” she said. “Without that type of system, it’s a black hole.”
Confusion about vote by mail could disenfranchise voters, said Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. The Democrat, who witnessed long lines and widespread voter confusion during Wisconsin’s April primary, said states need to start planning and investing now to protect public health and the integrity of the vote.
“This was preventable,” he said. “States have to start planning now.”