Vote by Mail: The New Post-Pandemic Political Debate
The social distancing measures needed during the coronavirus pandemic are alarming the parties that depend on low voter turnout to survive.
The social and health crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic has rethought our way of life from –almost– every angle.
While remote work, Zoom calls, and the digitalization of our habits have become our daily routine, there are lines that politicians dare not cross –especially if a presidential election is at stake.
When President Donald Trump said on Twitter on April 7 that voting by mail "doesn't work well for Republicans," and despite his argument about its alleged risk of fraud, he was alluding to a critical issue in the American democratic process, which has kept conservative parties in power by suppressing votes.
The president was using the social network to complain about the previous day in Milwaukee, where despite the order to stay home and the social distancing imposed on COVID-19 as prevention, thousands of voters had to go to the polls by order of the Supreme Court.
The reduction of polling places from 180 to 5, and the multiple reports of problems with absentee ballots, announced what would happen in the future in a country where social distancing will be the only measure of protection against a virus that doesn't have a vaccine yet.
"Voters have already been forced to choose between their health and casting their ballot," said Sean Eldridge, the founder and president of progressive advocacy group Stand Up America, in a conference call with reporters last week. "We must prepare our voting systems both for the upcoming primaries and the general elections this fall."
Although states such as Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington conduct their voting almost entirely by mail, the decision is not unanimous across the country.
In the United States, absentee ballots are cast once voter registers and cast a vote at a location other than his or her designated polling place on Election Day. They may be mailed, e-mailed, or faxed, and an absentee ballot must be requested at least one week before the election.
The Secretary of State or the Director of Elections in each state is in charge of that election process, including voter registration and ballot requests, and materials are often sent through the Postal Service without payment in advance.
Of all the states, 33 plus the District of Columbia allow early voting without an excuse, and 20 states allow voters to vote absentee but with a reason.
Cases such as that of North Carolina in February 2019, where congressional elections were tainted by Republican candidate Mark Harris' strategy of forging hundreds of absentee ballots, have given his own party the argument to oppose the mail ballot this year.
Several members of the Republican Party, including Georgia State House Speaker David Ralston, have warned in recent weeks that absentee voting "will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives," according to CBS News.
But who benefits from absentee voting is more complicated than it seems.
As the New York Times explains, traditionally, Republicans cast most absentee ballots, so a large increase would disproportionately help the Democrats' participation. And since the turnout had always been higher among the wealthier and better-educated voters who tended to be Republicans, anything that facilitated the voting of minorities and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds would benefit the Democrats.
However, during the Trump era, the demographic changes have tended more toward a more educated and wealthy Democratic voter. In contrast, the Republicans have taken over the heart of uneducated white America.
A recent Stanford University study of mail voting in Colorado showed that the mechanism increases turnout by 9.4 percentage points and that its effects are "significantly greater" among the smaller voting groups, such as young voters, workers, less educated voters, and voters of color.
"The results suggest that researchers and policymakers should look to Colorado's all-mail voting approach as an effective model for boosting aggregate turnout and reducing disparities among subgroups," the study adds.
The problem, it seems, is that these subgroups are precisely what could decide the next elections in favor of the Democratic Party.
Considering this scenario, it is not difficult to connect the dots between the risk of absentee voting for some and the war that President Trump has waged against the postal service during the pandemic.
After Congress approved the economic rescue package in late March, and in the face of calls for help from postal workers, Trump and his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took the position of blaming the service's economic crisis on their own team.
"The postal service is a joke," the president said at the time, assuring that he would not financially support the agency unless it increased package rates by 400%, according to the New York Times.
As expected, the Democrats sided with the postal service, which has been a symbol of work among the lower classes.
"We have to fight for the post office," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Their goal has always been to privatize, to make a profit off the Postal Service for private purposes," she added, referring to Republicans. "We are for the public having the Postal Service meet the public interest, not some special interest."
House Oversight Committee Chairman Carolyn Maloney and Representative Gerry Conolly, who heads the subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service, sounded the alarm that the agency could run out of funds by June if Congress does not act soon.
"Based on a number of briefings and warnings this week about a critical fall-off in mail across the country, it has become clear that the Postal Service will not survive the summer without immediate help from Congress and the White House," the two said in a March 23 joint statement, calling on Congress to appropriate $25 million in emergency funds to the agency.
"'In a moment where many Americans must stay at home — depending upon the post offices to deliver supplies, medication, or even social security checks — the idea of letting the Postal Service go underfunded or shut down completely is outrageous," Ryan Thomas, a spokesperson for the progressive grassroots organization Stand Up America, told the Business Insider. "It's even more outrageous if the motive is to stop people from voting."