At the heart of mail-in ballot challenges: voter suppression

Apr 18, 2020 | Politics

By Mindy Romero | Special to CalMatters

The battle to expand vote-by-mail erupted last Tuesday in Wisconsin’s primary when state Republican lawmakers denied Gov. Tony Evers’ call to mail a ballot to every registered voter in hopes of reducing the threat of COVID-19. The reason cited: voter fraud.

But this fight is not about a potential for voter fraud. It is about suppressing the vote of potentially millions of Americans, using a national crisis to politically game our elections all the way to November.

Since April 4, President Donald Trump has repeatedly – without evidence – charged that voting by mail is rampant with fraud. This type of incendiary remark is nothing new from Trump. Remember his unsubstantiated claims after the 2016 election of millions of “illegal voters” in California?

Here are the facts. First, it is undisputed among top election researchers that voter fraud is exceedingly rare, including elections using mail ballots. Further, states with extensive mail-in-balloting systems have enacted safeguards such as signature verification requirements that make fraud virtually nonexistent. And there is no clear research that supports a partisan disadvantage for Republicans – a charge Trump made recently.

Second, about a quarter of Americans already use mail-in ballots conveniently and securely. However, access to mail-in voting varies widely across the country; from all vote-by-mail elections in five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah – to only allowing mail balloting when voters provide an excuse, in about a third of U.S. states.

Third, current modeling of the coronavirus pandemic has led election officials in every state to plan for the very real possibility that we won’t be able to hold a status-quo General Election. Dr. Anthony Fauci, our nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of Trump’s COVID-19 Taskforce, has addressed the topic directly saying that he is unsure whether voting at the polls will be safe in November due to the coronavirus.

We also know that in California and elsewhere in the country volunteer poll workers and voting sites are pulling back from their commitments to upcoming elections due to their own safety concerns.

But the General Election will happen. Only Congress has the power to delay the election in November and the calendar window for such an act is very limited.

In many states, Republican leaders are encouraging people to vote-by-mail during this public health crisis. In Maryland, New Hampshire and Georgia, elected officials are encouraging the use of vote-by-mail in upcoming elections.

However, Trump’s claims of fraud can serve a purpose in these states and others by providing a justification for not expanding vote-by-mail to more broadly reach the full diversity of those who typically vote in-person. Indeed, some of the restrictions placed on mail-in voting, such as a requirement to request a mail ballot in advance, may have a disproportionate effect on minority communities and young people.

The fight over expanding vote-by-mail is not about fraud or whether mail voting hurts Republican candidates. It is about the fact that forcing in-person voting only – with limited safe voting alternatives – will discourage turnout of all parties, but likely benefit Democrats more. This is because typically higher turnout elections mean more new and infrequent voters are participating, groups that vote Democratic in higher numbers.

Not providing safe voting options in many parts of the country during a public health crisis becomes another form of suppression, particularly for historically underrepresented voters of color and young people.

Allowing widely accessible vote-by-mail is a no brainer. Not only should all states allow it, Congress should fund states as they build needed critical technical capacity and public outreach on administering mail-in voting, as well as federally mandate uniform vote-by-mail standards for all states.

In California, voters already have wide access to vote-by-mail. About two-thirds of voters cast mail-in ballots in 2018, either through the US Postal Service or by dropping them off at a secured dropbox. In 2020, 14 counties adopted the state’s Voter Choice Act, and now counties automatically send every registered voter a mail-in ballot which they have the option to mail, drop off at a vote center, secured dropbox or surrender so they may vote in-person.

As state leaders, including Democrats and Republicans, work together to adjust to the challenges of providing required in-person voting locations under COVID-19, there is recognition that maintaining as many as possible safe in-person voting options that are accessible for Californians is critical to ensuring the voters who want to or need to vote in person will not be disenfranchised.

Research in California has shown that many voter groups such as first-time voters, Latinos and young people are more likely to use in-person voting and often less likely to be reached by public information campaigns. Addressing the needs of these voters will be critical to staging a successful election.

Undeniably, our country has a shameful history of restricting access to voting, such as Jim Crow-era literacy tests and poll taxes, implemented by Republicans and Democrats alike. But even with our long history of denying the right to vote, never have some of our government leaders openly pursued formal policies that quite literally threaten the physical well-being of our voting population, all to prevent their representation.

Elected officials on both sides of the aisle must do what is right for all voters across the country this November.

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Mindy Romero is a political sociologist and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, msromero@usc.edu. Romero wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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