Voting by mail

September 30th, 2020

A massive year for voting by mail 

Election Day in the U.S. is a little more than a month away, but millions of people have already voted by mail. This year election experts expect a record 80 million ballots will ultimately be submitted by mail, more than twice the amount from 2016, and more than half of the 145 million total votes analysts forecast. The reasons for this spike in voting by mail are plain to see. The COVID-19 pandemic is making voters think twice about heading to polling sites — thousands of which will be closed in any event. Senior citizens who traditionally staff them are staying home, understandably wanting to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. Additionally, some voters who may not be worried about the virus simply want to avoid the hours-long lines seen during primaries in states like Ohio and Georgia. 

Yet, even though nearly two-thirds of American voters favor voting by mail during the pandemic — 63%, according to a Fox News poll — questions about it continue to divide the electorate. In one ABC News/Washington Post poll, 49% of respondents said they believe voting by mail is “vulnerable to significant levels of fraud” as opposed to 43% who think “adequate protections” exist.

Pros and cons 

Absentee voting has a long history in the United States, but the concept of voting by mail en masse is a more recent development. In 1978, California became the first state to allow all registered voters to vote absentee for any or no reason. By 2018, 27 states had adopted “no-excuse” absentee voting. The pandemic has hastened the expansion of no-excuse absentee voting, though some states are only relaxing laws temporarily. As of this writing, 34 states are allowing any registered voter to apply for a mail-in ballot as a matter of preference. Nine states are automatically mailing applications for ballots to all registered voters, while nine others and the District of Columbia are mailing ballots to all registered voters. 

Even in non-pandemic times, voting by mail proves attractive to many voters because of its convenience. In addition, it may reduce voters’ tendency to leave down-ballot contests blank, because voters take time to research less familiar candidates and issues. Until recently, the cost savings associated with voting by mail — no polling place staff or voting machines needed — and the increase in voter turnout meant it enjoyed support across America’s partisan divides. Despite these benefits, voting by mail also has drawbacks. First, it requires a robust infrastructure that many states simply don’t possess. Inaccurate or outdated voting rolls can lead to misdelivered or lost ballots. Furthermore, if voters don’t carefully follow instructions, their ballots could be invalidated. Other critics complain that counting mail-in ballots takes too long. With the dramatic increase in absentee ballots this year, most experts do not expect definitive results on election night. 

Security and integrity 

One of the most vocal critics of voting by mail has been President Trump. While supporting traditional absentee voting, he has often called no-excuse and universal mail voting inaccurate and fraudulent. In contrast, the FBI says it has no evidence of coordinated mail voting fraud schemes this year. Writing for The Hill, vote-by-mail advocate Amber McReynolds and political science professor Charles Stewart III searched The Heritage Foundation’s database of voter fraud cases and found just 204 cases related to absentee ballots in the last two decades. While stressing that “there is no excuse for any type of voter or election fraud, by any method,” McReynolds and Stewart point out absentee ballot fraud is “an occurrence that translates to about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast.” 

Nevertheless, recent instances of fraudulent mail-in voting have made headlines. Last year, a North Carolina Republican operative was indicted for criminally mishandling absentee ballots in a now-overturned 2018 congressional election. This summer, four men were charged with fraud in an all-mail special election in Paterson, New Jersey. Finally, in early September, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said he would investigate as many as one thousand possible cases of double voting in the primaries. These voters cast absentee ballots by mail, then attempted to vote in person. Knowingly voting twice in the same election is illegal under federal law, and is a felony in many states. 

The consensus view is that voting fraud happens by mail just as often as it happens in person; that is, rarely. In fact, the attention paid to these small-scale episodes shows that safeguards are working as intended. “Imagine trying to swing the outcome of a presidential election,” election law professor Rick Hasen told NPR, “how many people you would have to get involved or how many ballots you would have to try to intercept without detection in order to try to have a meaningful impact on races that are typically decided by tens of thousands of votes if not more in a particular state.”

“All the good we may do” 

As Christians, we believe our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and our ultimate allegiance belongs to God. While God’s realm favors monarchy more than democracy, we are nevertheless fortunate to live in a democratic republic today. We can speak out in ways our first-century forebears in faith could never have imagined. When they proclaimed God’s rule and Jesus’ lordship, they risked and frequently incurred retribution from the ruling authorities. We do not. The U.S. Constitution guarantees our right to speak our mind about society’s policies and priorities. 

White Christians in the U.S. can also learn from Black Christians about the links between ballot and belief. In a recent essay, Esau McCaulley, Anglican priest and professor of New Testament, spotlights the long tradition of Black Christians, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, “explicitly linking the expansion of voting access to what Christians believe people are” — equally created in God’s image. The Christian “who supports policies that do the most to assist in human flourishing is showing a deep concern for others. Voting is not a Christian requirement, but it can be a profoundly Christian act.” 

How can you vote by mail? 

In late July, the United States Postal Service alerted 46 states and the District of Columbia that some state election deadlines for requesting and returning mailed-in ballots don’t align with postal delivery standards. This meant that some ballots might not arrive in time to be counted. When he testified before Congress in August, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy sought to assure senators and the public that the USPS remains fully capable of delivering election mail “securely and on time.” 

If your state is making the vote-by-mail option available and you wish to use it, you should request your ballot as soon as possible and make a plan to return it. You should also be aware that not all ballots distributed by mail must be returned by mail. Depending upon your state’s laws, you may be able to return your mail ballot to your local board of elections on or before Election Day; to your polling place on Election Day (in which case you will not be also voting in-person, which is illegal); or to a secure ballot drop box. Once you have returned your ballot, you may be able to track its progress and know when it is recorded by using your state’s online ballot tracker. 

For further information, you can check the federal government’s official website on Absentee and Early Voting. The site includes links to regulations regarding absentee voting in your state.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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