All-Mail Voting Pros and Cons

 Joe Murray  |    May 11, 2020
All-Mail Voting

Four days before the April 7 spring election that featured a presidential primary and heated contest for state Supreme Court, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political reporter Craig Gilbert summed up the political environment in Wisconsin this way: ‚ÄúInstead of serving as an early test of partisan energy, a barometer of the political mood in swing-state America, or a key showdown in the Democratic nominating fight, Wisconsin‚Äôs trip to the polls on Tuesday has turned into something else entirely: a national object lesson in the chaos, discord and personal peril that come with trying to hold an election in a pandemic.‚ÄĚ

As we know, the April 7 general election did proceed with in-person voting at the same time Wisconsin residents were asked to stay safer at home with Gov. Evers‚Äô ‚ÄúSafer at Home‚ÄĚ executive order. Wisconsin voters responded, prior to Election Day, by voting absentee by mail in record numbers. Well over 1 million residents voted by mail, setting the stage for another political discussion coming out of the spring election: should Wisconsin consider moving permanently to all-mail elections? Or, if the current COVID-19 pandemic persists, should Wisconsin mandate only all-mail voting for the November 2020 presidential election?

All-mail voting is a simple concept, but the administrative infrastructure necessary to execute statewide mail voting is not in place in Wisconsin. Today, only the states of Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington allow all-mail voting. For the remaining states, voting includes in-person voting on Election Day, in-person early voting, absentee voting, some combination of these options, or all these options. Voting exclusively by mail has not been widely accepted by most states. 

To put the absentee voting surge for the April 7 election into perspective, here are some recent Wisconsin election numbers:

  • In 2014, there were 374,294 (15%) absentee ballots out of 2.4 million votes cast.
  • In 2016, 819,000 (27%) absentee ballots out of 2.9 million votes were cast.
  • In 2018, 595,914 (23%) absentee ballots out of 2.6 million votes were cast.
  • In April 2020, it is estimated there were 1.3 million absentee ballots cast but the total votes are not certified yet. The uncertified number of total votes stands at 1.55 million.

All-mail voting has never really been debated in Wisconsin, primarily because voters already turn out in historically high numbers in the Badger State. As the fallout continues over the April 7 election, read on to learn about some pros and cons of all-mail voting.

All-mail election pros

  • All-mail elections could increase voter turnout: This is true particularly in midterm and spring elections for down-ballot races, which are elections for political office that appear in a lower position on the electoral ballot. Political scientists argue that all-mail elections don‚Äôt boost turnout very much in presidential election years, and Wisconsin is already a high-turnout state in off-year and presidential elections. It‚Äôs primarily down-ballot elections that could be impacted through higher turnout. ¬†
  • All-mail voting is very convenient: Voters don‚Äôt have to travel to a specific place, take time off work or wait in line to cast their vote(s). In states with all-mail voting, voters¬† receive their ballot in the mail weeks in advance, fill in the form vote-by-vote, put the ballot in a special envelope, stamp it, and drop it in the mailbox. The process is simple, easy and convenient.
  • States with all-mail voting save millions of dollars: These states don‚Äôt need to establish and run polling places or pay polling staff. With all-mail voting, there is no need to run two separate election processes: one for in-person voting on Election Day and another for all-mail absentee voting.
  • Low voter fraud: Advocates of all-mail voting claim mail-based voting is less susceptible to voter fraud than in-person systems that rely on electronic voting systems to record and tally votes. Because all-mail voting is less susceptible to hacking, it‚Äôs more resistant to voter fraud.

All-mail election cons

  • High voter fraud: Interestingly, the topic of voter fraud falls into both the ‚Äúpros‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúcons‚ÄĚ categories of all-mail elections. Opponents of all-mail voting claim that most voter fraud prosecutions involve absentee ballots that were illegally cast. After all, it‚Äôs ‚Äúeasier to forge a signature, impersonate a voter, or buy a vote in the privacy of one‚Äôs home than it is in a voting booth at the polls,‚ÄĚ according to Slate Magazine writer Mark Joseph Stern. The best way to eliminate fraud, says Stern, is to restrict absentee voting to those with a valid excuse, such as an illness or being physically impaired.
  • All-mail voting is unreliable: Ballots can be lost in the mail, delivered late or disqualified because of mistakes or signature discrepancies. If absentee ballots are lost in the mail or delivered late, they will not count. With the United States Postal Service‚Äôs cost-cutting measures, the post office is not as fast and efficient as it once was.¬†
  • All-mail voting increases voter ‚Äúerrors‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúresidual votes‚ÄĚ: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), ‚Äúwhen making a ballot outside of an in-person voting location, a voter can potentially mark more selections in a contest than the maximum number allowed (called an overvote) or mark less than the maximum number allowed, including marking nothing for that contest (called an undervote). Political scientists often refer to these overvotes and undervotes as residual votes.‚ÄĚ The article notes that voting in-person allows the voter to correct the problem on the spot, while absentee voting most often does not allow for a mechanism to inform voters of errors.
  • All-mail voting is more difficult for certain populations: According to the NCSL, low-income and younger voters move more often, and registering and keeping addresses current can be more difficult for all-mail elections. In some cases, literacy can be an issue because election materials are often written at the college level.

All-mail voting tends to be partisan, with Democrats generally more supportive and Republicans less enthusiastic. With a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature, this idea is not likely to move forward anytime soon. But the administrative and legal chaos that took place heading into the April election won’t be forgotten anytime soon by either side of the political divide.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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