Why Vote by Mail, or the Unlikely Case for Four More Months of Trump
Quickly written June 15, 2020
Tl;dr: Why voting might last until April 2021 and why that might actually strengthen democracy. Also, try to vote absentee this election if you can, make Election Day a national holiday (Columbus is on his way out), boo money in politics, three cheers for the US Post Office, and tell congress today: “we vote by mail now, or we vote you out!”
We need voting by mail and we need it now. I outline at the bottom a sketch of how I imagine voting by mail might work this pandemic election season. I see it as the *least* radical of all desperately needed reforms right now (and in that sense perhaps the most disappointing) but also a needed first step in the long infrastructure game of rebuilding a more representative, more reformable democratic republic. Voting by mail is a small smart step toward both the immediate and the long game of saving America from itself. According to recent polls, 68% of Americans agree with me, 66% don’t feel comfortable coming to a voting poll during a pandemic, and yet 17 states won’t permit pandemic concerns to grant an absentee ballot. (See the two links below.) You see the problem. Thankfully, voting by mail already exists in many countries outside the US, five states in the US (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington), and in some form as absentee voting in all states. Absentee voting is no back pocket solve-all, since some states won’t let the COVID-anxious vote absentee. In any case, it will take months to prep a full vote-by-mail rollout in every state.
So, it’s time to figure out voting by mail — now.
Let’s start with the most obvious, bulletproof reason and then basically ignore it until the end (it’s sometimes useful to think without the overwhelming press of a pandemic):
Reason: “Voting should not cost you or someone else their life.”
Self-evidently true. True heroes have already died for the right to vote: to the hall of martyrs, we need to add no victims at the voting booth this year. Assembling eligible voters at voter booths this November will both (a) unnecessarily expose many Americans, including elderly poll workers, to COVID infection and (b) also effectively disenfranchise a large swath of immunocompromised voters, especially the elderly, who vote with their feet by staying at home rather than casting a ballot. The likelihood of a wintertime surge in November compounds these risks even more. If no change is made, as a direct consequence of voting in person, a very small percentage of well over 130,000,000 likely voters will die directly and expose millions more to a deadly disease. Until a vaccine has established herd immunity, having alternatives to voting in person is de facto the pragmatic right thing to do. That much is obvious. Voting by mail is no single bullet solution, but it is the most tested, most secure alternative to killing people unnecessarily in this case. So clear and so compelling is this reasoning, I think, that it justifies, if needed, postponing the election until all Americans can be provided with options other than in-person voting. If that means taking a few extra months to arrange voting by mail, so be it.
None of this is particularly interesting. That 2020 is an asterisks year will still be obvious in 2060. What we need is analysis that will get our republic to 2060 in one piece. For the remainder, I focus on assessing voting by mail over *every* election, not just this one. To that end, let’s consider a few common reasons to *not* vote by mail — and why they go wrong.
A reason to oppose voting by mail:
1. “It leads to voting fraud.”
If true, that would be profound. But it is not true. Not at all. Voter fraud, or where one person impersonates another, is in theory the core corruption of the very parity of votes and must be strenuously protected against. The swapping of one voice for another is solid Black Mirror plot material. But, in practice, voting fraud is nearly nonexistent and rarely consequential. (Voting suppression, or keeping people from getting to the voting booth, is a different story. Read on.) Our system, which already includes voting by mail to some degree, protects against voting fraud enormously well. The major study below finds that “it is more likely that a person will be struck by lightning than he will impersonate another person at the polls.” After a Kansas politician claimed voter fraud was a major issue at home, a follow-up study found only *five* fraudulent votes in his county of 130,000 over twenty years of elections (see second link below). The Heritage Foundation, in the same breathe that it urges voting fraud not to be a partisan issue, makes it one by drumming up unwarranted fear over a thousand incidents in their database, in a country of 250,000,000 eligible voters (see third link below). America’s voting system is largely federated and thus it is complicated and uneven: as a result, it has many systemic and practical issues, but consequential voting fraud — and voting fraud by mail in particular — is not one of them. As the Brennan report argues, voter fraud is the black-masked bank robber of our democratic nightmares: it is sufficiently lurid to hold headlines and stoke fears but it isn’t actually a risk. Lots of smoke but no fire.
(Where else do we make this mistake? Where do we cry wolf at other unsubstantiated claims? Don’t be the Edgar Welch of voter fraud — the gunman who burst into a family pizzeria looking for a conspiracy that wasn’t there. After his arrest, he admitted, “the intel on this was not 100%.” So too are most claims of voter fraud. Avoid indulging scraps of bad info and then assuming bad faith about the whole system. Democracy demands we not cry wolf until there is a wolf.)
The next reason to oppose voting by mail:
2. “It would lead to delays in counting.”
Yes. It would take longer to collect and gather all ballots — and to be sure, it might take much longer. But is this a bad thing? Why not wish it so? More time might just be the bitter pill for healing our democracy. A slower, more deliberative election season could give more time to review the down ballot, cast our ballots, and double-count the tallies. (Indeed if you’re worried about fraud, you should also advocate for slower voting, and voting by ballot will surely require that.) I see no obvious advantage to maintaining the usual November spasm of blood pressure, where the millions gather to watch the polls close one-by-one across the country on one evening and wake up the next morning to a new political reality. Imagine if instead there were, say, as many as four months in which every person with a mailing address would receive their ballot, review the supporting materials and the positions that come with it in the comfort of their home, discuss and debate where appropriate, mark their choices, and return the ballot by mail — all at the leisure that puts a literal solar season back into election season. Gone would be the newscasters promising 10-second countdowns to polls closing. Gone would be the annoyance of East Coasters waiting hours watching West Coast polls trickle in one way or the other (instead the weeks and months wait would make it much less stressful). Gone would be rush to vote on only one day, the over-long lines, and the voting traffic. Who isn’t sick of the endless election seasons? (Ted Cruz announced his candidacy 596 days before Election Day.) Most countries get by with a few months max (France pulls it off in two weeks: absurde!). Why not consolidate the bad stuff and extend the good stuff? Say, two months for nominees to campaign, two months for parties to choose their nominees by mail ballot, and then two months for the final election by mail ballot. Careful reform, bookended by a post office calendar window, could both deescalate the voting adrenaline and shorten the campaign marathons.
A reason to oppose voting by mail:
3. “It benefits only one party.”
Nope. “There is no evidence that voting by mail gives one party an advantage,” notes the review summary below (see first link below). Numerous studies conclude that “voting by mail does not provide any partisan advantage.” In a few local precincts, voting only by mail slightly lowers voter turnout, but in most and on average it modestly increases voter turn out. This may not seem like a big deal, but consider the underlying principle and arc of democracy: more votes per people, more democracy by people. The validity of democracy depends on its ability to poll and then benefit the most people. If we cannot consent to be governed by the mechanisms that improve the consent of the governed, we have no right to be governed as a democracy.
Imagine, just for fun, the extreme: what if the evidence here is wrong and somehow either the Democrats or the Republicans completely sweep the national election this year? What then? Well, just the usual: one party would claim the White house and a mandate for change, but no one party is likely to claim both houses of congress and nor certainly the down ballot. In this extreme case, either Trump’s mandate would be renewed or Biden, a former Vice President possibly eyeing Condolezza Rice as a possible VP, would step back into the White House: even the most stunning upset would still be stunningly status quo (if the present is status quo at all). Both parties would soon find their members dividing its political gains and loses in order to attract the largest margin of available voters. Consider the classic analogy (which seems slightly Pareto dubious to me): two ice cream vendors tend to crowd near one another in the center of a beachfront of distributed beachgoers. Even in a big upset (where the tide to shift and the beachgoers scramble to a new position), the two-party system balances the new beach by returning to the center. Were only one half of the beach to show up to vote, the vendors will quickly relocate to divide the customers evenly. I’m not saying a massive upset would not have consequence; I am saying that, even if it does, voting by mail is still the most system-conservative reform that everyone can get behind in a pandemic. Even if voting by mail helps usher in an extraordinary partisan upset, halving the beachfront will still be the name of the game. (For this reason, it is not conservatives that should be crying voter fraud wolf, but genuine system radicals who might resist voting by mail: it stands to make democracy more robust, more expressive of the public will, and thus harder to mobilize discontent to radically reform. Hmm… somedays I may actually be against postal mail!)
And remember this system-conservative partisan sweep is the *extreme* hypothetical here. The balance of evidence suggests far more ordinary outcomes: system-wide voting by mail will likely only “slightly increase” on average the overall number of eligible voters that can make it to the polls and thus the total voter turnout. Still, in the long run, a slight net increase to most future elections is nothing to sneeze at. Saving for another time the many strong critiques of the foundations of democracy , it is worth repeating the foundation of representation by and for the people: Madisonian democracies work, when they work at all, by letting the governed appoint their governors (in the broad sense). Thus, an election outcome is as valid as it can claim to represent the consent of the governed. And there’s plenty of work to do ahead on this front. A majority of Americans do vote, but just barely, and that’s only in our most popular Presidential elections: fewer than 60%, often just above 50%, of all eligible voters have voted over the last forty or fifty years and even less on non-presidential elections. The long arc of American history has been a slow, painful path toward expanding voter eligibility and participation. Voting by mail stands to nudge forward both.
(An aside: who consents to be governed should be specified at every level. For example, police reform could largely be driven by local communities, since they bear the burden of the police services or violence, but with state and national oversight to ensure that democratic majorities do not whitewash the legitimate grievances of the policed minorities. The police, or any community peace keeping service, can only police effectively so far as their activities are accepted by the vast majority of those they police — and it is a staggering tragedy of American democracy that the comfortable white majority has for so long tolerated and supported, with our votes and taxes, police forces that brutalize disproportionately black, brown, and poor people. The consent of the governed must not just remain an abstract principle of statistical validity: it must also scale to account for the grievances of the oppressed. Perhaps, for example, any local community that expresses a significant dissatisfaction with the direction of police reform after a certain period of time should automatically trigger an external review of the police system and a mandatory referendum with the community. An aside to that aside: government leaders have to actually listen to black people living in police-frequent communities, not just count complaints since, counterintuitively, a better functioning complaint department may report *more* complaints when, in a more brutal past, many complaints would go unreported. By analogy, air pollution has been decreasing in LA for decades but reports against air quality have rarely been higher; so a complaint count alone does not indicate progress or regression itself. To assess, one also needs to appeal to the people themselves: are you being policed appropriately?)
A reason to oppose voting by mail:
4. “It is too easy. It encourages uninformed voting; showing up in person builds character and enforces a minimum commitment from the voter and thus incentivizes informed voting.”
Showing up in person is surely a commitment, but it is not a commitment that produces informed votes: it taxes all voters logistically, requiring that we carve a few spare hours out of a work day. Thus it privileges the already privileged — those with surplus hours in their day, gas in their tanks, and spare dollars in their wallet to get off work. Finding voting centers and waiting out long lines in person does not endow voters with more thought or information. Long lines, if anything, do the opposite: time constraints push voters to rush in, vote straight-party ticket, and get out as quickly as they can. The demand to vote in person gently straight-jackets the time it takes to cast thoughtful, discerning votes. Thankfully, many states have abolished straight-party ticket voting, a commonplace only before the 1950s and 1960s. Only six states still offer this literally “no-brain” (which, I guess, is the opposite of a no-brainer) option: Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. Informed voting requires the time to slow down, read (not just doom-scroll memes or YouTube videos), evaluate the details of the actual ballot, and then — why not? — return our vote from the convenience and health security of our homes. Sample ballots are already available online — why not send the real thing home?
A reason to oppose voting by mail:
5. “It will diminish the in-person community ritual that is Election Day.”
True enough, but this is only an either-or in pandemics. Election Day is a delight for many: eating a cookie, signing your name, chatting with neighbors at the local school or church (polling station) lets us participate in the most local layer of what the media historian Mark Brewin calls “the mass-mediated ritual” of a national election. Election Day is the closest thing democracy has to its own holy day — conferring a messiness and meaning far greater than the asymptotically low value of one vote among 200 million (never mind the electoral college). Losing the in-person ritual of Election Day will be yet another considerable COVID-19 loss this year, so let’s not lose it in future elections. Mailing ballots by post, dropping ballots off in secured drop boxes, casting at the ballot box: we can have all three and more.
A reason to oppose voting by mail:
6. “If voting by mail is so good, why not vote by app, text, or whatever the most modern update is?”
Paper is not easily or systematically hackable; paper is not controlled by private patents; paper trails have worked in a pinch since 197 BC in Rome; and the post can reach most of the 20% of eligible voters who don’t have smart phones. By contrast, new digital solutions are subject to untested cyber exploits, private developer influence, and uneven voter access to tech. Even the most diehard bitcoin enthusiast knows to keep cash in a crashing market — and every Election Day is a crash for some party, so keep the paper receipts. Even the most tech-illiterate voter can manage a paper and pen. E-voting machines have been hacked and rebuilt for over two decades now: the most secure machines rely on the security of paper — the literal paper trail of countable votes — that backs both voting in person and voting by mail. Technologists will promise the moon, but most cybersecurity experts, like Princeton’s Ed Felten, agree that the answer already lies here on earth — among the trees: machines can and will continue to aid the process, but our voter-fraud-proof system already depends on a physical, pulp-based paper trail reviewed in person by authorized auditors. Paper trails matter and paper trails are the post office’s *game.*
Please note: paper trails may be necessary to avoid voting fraud, but they do little to avoid the criminal playbook of voter suppression that is American voting history. To name a few, the limits of universal white male suffrage in Colonial times, black male suffrage in the 1870s, women’s suffrage in the early 1900s, Jim Crow literacy tests, ongoing strict official document registration requirements, ongoing strict name-spelling policies (which punishes dynamic name orthographies), ongoing war on drugs that slapped lifetime felony status for minor drug charges, widespread voter record purges (NY & GA recently), misdirecting voters to wrong addresses or too late deadlines, and countless other techniques. Almost all of these techniques have targeted black and disadvantaged intersections of the eligible voting population. For example, in 2012, 5.85 million felons could not vote (up from 1.2 million in 1976); 33% of those were black men. Who can endure the thought that, just because a black man tries to escape a hard situation not of their own making through drugs, they have permanently revoked their social contract or abdicated their capacity to consent to be governed? (Did Jesus, King of Kings, listen to, forgive, and lead only the healthy and the pure?) Let all adult citizens vote. Period.
Many other problems abide: the sweeping problems of money in politics (elections that cost tens of billions of dollars, billion-dollar disinformation campaigns, and much else). Voting by mail does nothing to address that perennial insult to the existence of voters — gerrymandering or unconstitutional partisan redistricting. Democracy, like most ideals, is worth the practical effort, even if it has yet to exist.
But I digress. (Not really: the problems above overshadow postal mail in scale and significance, but postal mail, introduced during the pandemic, may speed more systematic solutions.)
Here are a few nice side-effects of nationwide voting by mail:
The mailman can. Mail-in voting might give the mailman career security in a moment when Amazon delivery has been first parasitizing and now competing against the post office. (No sane person would give Bezos the keys to our democracy: queue comment now….) Were voting by mail to make the US post office not just an artery but the aorta of the lifeblood of our voting system, I would bet that no Presidential administration, no matter how anti-government, would dare to defund their very channel for sending and receiving votes. As the historian Richard John has argued, few, if any, institutions are as vital and under-appreciated in making America as the US Post Office (see link below). The post office made America a republic, not (just) a mess of intransigent former colonies; it exposed our differences, linked frontiers and capitals by chains of ponies, sustained the Republic of Letters, and much else. The post office is a singularly impressive institution with a distinctly neglected reputation: today, if private, USPS would be the 17th largest company, but it is not: it is a vital public institution that requires zero tax dollars (it funds itself off of stamps and purchases). Today, amid the haze of much snail mail spam, it also insures, secures, and delivers our passports, drivers licenses, checks, and many other documents more sensitive than a single ballot. Again, once the post becomes not just an artery (as it already is) but the aorta of a healthy democracy, the US Post Office will have a common cause to exist even among elected deregulators. If you can’t imagine a public service outperforming a business because it is not a business, please read the business historian himself and then the book behind it:
Plus, a neat “I voted by mail” sticker — which the mailman might leave in your mailbox *after* your ballot has been received — could serve as a friendly, low-obnoxious reminder to get out the vote throughout the whole mail-in season. I know few fans of virtue signaling, but when it gets out the vote, it’s not just a virtue: it’s a function, do it.
So, time is ticking toward November. How would all this work in a pandemic? No one knows for sure — and it is surely irresponsible to imagine that I do. I don’t! Still, here is a back-of-the-envelop timeline to November that, if needed, could accordion out to as late as April 2021. It assumes, given the dual fragility of democratic legitimacy and the uncertainty of pandemics, that a more patiently paced election should only be concluded after a majority of eligible voters have voted. (Feel free to skip to the end if you’re not into hypothetical details in the passive voice!)
A Speculative Timeline to An Election that Ends in April 2021
The US public demands many reforms including mail-in voting. It will take an act of Congress to make a federal decision to standardize mail-in voting across all states and voters. (Please don’t forget this part: share, improve on, contact your congresspeople!)
Country-wide preparations for mail-in voting begins in full force. Federal funds support the mobilization, training, and preparation of the usual voting commissions, extending the usual election audit to include a broader pandemic voting season.
Preparations continue, and if possible, the first round of voting materials go out. Steps may include a request for address confirmation to all eligible voters — use all the media, letters by post, email, text, app, and also word-of-mouth community organization that reaches out to shut-ins and those without regular mail access. Address lists could in theory draw on public utility, telephone, COVID contact tracing, and other lists, etc. (Given so much uninvited tech surveillance, auditors might as well use its data for good too.) All voters should receive their individually-marked, mail-in ballot in the post office by (the first and usual) Election Day, which has been declared a national holiday. The envelop should include at least the individualized ballot, a background description on the propositions, races, and candidates, an appropriate marking device, a bright green sticker with the submission deadline, and a pre-stamped return envelop with the voter’s printed return address (for legibility) and lines for changing the return address. On Election Day, again a federal work holiday, voting activities might include picking up your ballot if the mail did not work, dropping off your ballot in a secured drop off box by foot or car, or casting your ballot in person under socially distanced measures. Within a given period after receiving a ballot, the voting commission sends the voter a postcard to the voter’s given return address confirming that the vote has been counted.
If a majority of eligible voters still have not voted, additional time is granted to prepare, distribute, and collect voter ballots by mail. Voters are tallied, audited, and vote participation (not results) are mapped. Presumably, meanwhile, the line of succession is invoked as Trump’s term expires and no new President has been elected. Presumably, unless the third of Republican senate seats up for grabs are rebalanced in favor of the Democrats, the Republican Iowan Senator Chuck Grassley (not Pence, not Pelosi, both of whose terms expire) would be next in the line of succession as interim President. Presumably if all hell broke loose and Trump demanded to stay in office beyond his term, that decision alone would turn a majority of undecided voters against him. That’s admittedly a lot to presume, but it sums up this unusual case for four more months, not years, of Trump.
If a majority of eligible voters still have not voted, or if needed for pandemic delays, additional time is granted to prepare, distribute, and collect voter ballots by mail. Voters are tallied, audited, and vote participation (not results) are mapped. Interim President continues.
At this point (I’m writing in June 2020), a majority of eligible voters will surely have been able to vote by mail or in person by April 2021. If needed, another, final Election Day could be held to let those vote in person who could not otherwise. If not needed, the second Election Day marks the end of the voting season, and the results are publicly announced. Depending on constitutional negotiations, future election cycles could be reset to the regular four years, with the new election season stretching from November to April (and probably much less).
This quick post will have to do for now. No doubt there will be significant legal and logistical challenges ahead, no matter which path we take. Delays appear inevitable. At least 15 states have postponed their primaries already. I’ve argued here that we should delay purposefully, leaving a brighter democratic legacy for future generations by extending the vote to as many people as safely as possible, in crisis and in calm.
Vote by mail. Tell your congresspeople today: All Americans gets to vote by mail now, or we will vote you out in November with a collective cough that will shake the nation.
A few next steps: