Conservatives have spent the election cycle spreading fear and misinformation about mail-in ballots. Donald Trump has called mail-in voting a “scam” and suggested that millions of counterfeit foreign ballots will be submitted. PragerU has put out a video calling mail-in balloting a way to “steal an election”. Faced with the absurd conspiracies and criticisms, Democrats have rightly defended mail-in ballots as a crucial way to preserve democracy, especially during a pandemic.
But the fact that expanded mail-in balloting is legitimate and necessary does not mean that Democrats have nothing to fear from it. In fact, as Thomas Edsall of the New York Times documented, because mailed ballots have a higher rate of rejection and are more easily subject to loss and error, Democrats may lose votes they critically need in close states – especially because Democrats are much more likely to vote by mail than Republicans. (According to one poll, 47% of Biden voters planned to vote by mail, compared with just 11% of Trump supporters.)
Edsall quotes reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer on the risk that so-called “naked ballots” pose in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state. These are mailed ballots that arrive without the required “secrecy envelope”. The state supreme court has ordered that nonconforming ballots must be thrown out, and the Inquirer points out that if Democrats tend to be voting by mail, the loss of “naked ballots” could create a serious problem for Joe Biden in this critical state, with naked ballots becoming the “hanging chads” of 2020. Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by less than 1% of the vote.
It’s important for Democrats to frankly face up to some of the unique problems of mail-in balloting, because it’s far more likely to hurt Democrats than Republicans. This is not so much because of “voter fraud” problems as because ballots get lost and when voters violate bureaucratic requirements, their ballots aren’t counted. The New York Times reported in 2012 that mailed absentee ballots were rejected at twice the rate of in-person votes, and that there were unique opportunities for error. Mailed votes “are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth”.
People make mistakes when they are having to follow a more complex procedure, and those mistakes can result in their ballot being invalidated
The usual fears of “voter fraud” are ill-founded – conservative fearmongering about it relies on anecdotes rather than data, and PragerU’s video hauls out the same tired old stories like the dog that was sent a ballot. But there are obvious ways that more mail-in balloting can compromise the integrity of elections. Having the “secret ballot” of the voting booth is a critical way to ensure that nobody knows how a person voted, and that they thus cannot be coerced by a family member, church leader, employer, etc. Without the secret ballot, people’s votes can be manipulated or coerced by those who have power over them. Conservative activist Ralph Reed already disclosed that his Faith & Freedom Coalition is going to be “harvesting ballots in churches this year”. Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA believes that the presence of fewer students on college campuses will benefit the right. Students who want to vote may have to cast mailed ballots that are more likely to be lost or thrown out.
It’s not that states should not be expanding mailed balloting. It’s crucial that the franchise be made as accessible as possible. The security measures states are taking also ensure that the conspiratorial rightwing claims about counterfeiting are delusional. What we have to fear is not that the wrong person will vote, or that people will vote more than one. The problems are more mundane: people make mistakes when they are having to follow a more complex procedure, and those mistakes can result in their ballot being invalidated.
Edsall concludes that if the absentee ballot rejection rate is high, and these ballots tilt Democratic, it could “mean roughly 2.7 million Biden votes would go uncounted, compared with roughly 735,000 Trump votes”. Fortunately, Biden is well ahead in polls, but what matters is the outcome in swing states rather than the national popular vote, and it may be that in swing states things are close enough that these are differences that can make a difference. We must remember the nightmare of the 2000 election, in which just 537 votes gave George W Bush the presidency. (Though a full and fair count probably would have resulted in Al Gore winning.)
Of course, it also doesn’t help that Donald Trump, and his postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, have been trying to undermine the efficiency of the United States Postal Service. The USPS has already warned states it may not meet their ballot deadlines, and there have been USPS-related problems with mailed ballots. This summer, the USPS inspector general “identified hundreds of absentee ballots for the April election [in Wisconsin] that never made it to voters or couldn’t be counted because of postmark problems”, a problem it attributed to “receiving outgoing absentee ballots at the last moment from election officials, inconsistent postmarking of ballots and one mail carrier’s inattention to getting absentee ballots to voters …” These errors were on a small scale, and it’s important not to extrapolate wildly from individual incidents. But the closer the November election is in particular states, the more even a few errors and oversights could shift the result.
Democrats need to push back against rightwing misinformation about mail-in balloting. But they also need to be aware that it is their candidate who could be hurt by the problems that do exist with mailed ballots. These problems don’t come from government malevolence or large-scale conspiracy, but from a combination of normal bureaucratic logistical challenges, the right’s effort to undermine the efficiency of government, and the way that power relationships can influence votes in the absence of a secret ballot. Donald Trump’s complaints about mail-in ballots are a disingenuous way to pre-emptively delegitimize an election result he doesn’t like, considering that a Biden victory will partly depend on mailed votes. But there are still risks to increased mailed balloting – risks that might actually damage Joe Biden’s prospects.