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Does all-mail voting unfairly tip the election to one party or another?

Five states automatically mail ballots to all registered voters for all elections: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. An additional nine states have the statutory freedom to mail ballots to all voters for certain elections: Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming. An additional three states allow counties to opt to run all-mail elections under certain conditions: California, Nebraska, and North Dakota.

There's a lot to wrap your head around, just for a basic understanding of the different approaches. Each state defines its system differently. These all-mail voting approaches are defined through state-level statutes, so even those that take a similar overall approach are different in the details.

I voted by mail this year. I'm not in an all-mail voting state or precinct, so I requested my ballot. After I filled it out and mailed it back, I received a notification that the election authority had invalidated by ballot because my signature didn't match the one in their database.

What are the basics? All-mail voting means that a blank ballot is sent to every eligible voter. Voters receive their ballot in the mail, can complete it, and send it back to be received, evaluated, and counted. It also usually means that in-person polling places are limited or eliminated altogether. All-mail voting is part of a larger category of measures called convenience voting that includes at-request absentee voting, early voting, and voting by phone (you read that right--voting by telephone is approved in some states and circumstances for military or disabled voters).

Why all-mail voting?

Why do states opt for all-mail voting?

All-mail voting saves money--with all-mail voting, states can pay millions of dollars less on payroll for staff to set up and manage physical polling places. This Pew study found that Colorado precincts saved an average of 40% when implementing all-mail voting.

Lowering costs seems to be a common reason states consider going to all-mail voting, but that's not the whole story. The biggest reason that seems to make a difference relates to logistics and voting access in rural places. Precincts with low population density face tactical and financial challenges to set up physical locations for voting that adhere to requirements for suitable facilities and access. They can also struggle to staff polling places with ideologically diverse teams as required by statute in rural counties with strong partisan leaning. For an example of these kinds of issues, New Mexico allows all-mail voting in precincts with fewer than 100 voters and where the nearest polling place for neighboring precincts is more than 20 miles away.

Indeed, a quick glance at the map of states with all-mail voting tells this story visually--almost all of the Western and some of the Great Plains states--where precincts with low population density predominate--have all-mail voting. Almost all of the rest of the states don't.

Does all-mail voting unfairly tip the election to one party or another?

Recent experimental studies seem to indicate that all-mail voting increases participation without changing the partisan outcome of the election. This study looked at 40 million voting records before and after two states introduced all-mail voting and found no partisan effect of all-mail voting. Likewise, this study analyzed data from three states from before and after they implemented all-mail voting and also found that the new voting approach did not change any party's share of the turnout.

But didn't Democrats overwhelmingly vote by mail and change the election as a result?

One of the studies cited above concludes that "Our results imply that the partisan outcomes of vote-by-mail elections closely resemble in-person elections, at least in normal times." These researchers acknowledge that this year's election may be different--the study was conducted before the November elections at a time when the President's campaign and Republicans were criticizing all-mail voting. It is a reasonable hypothesis that turning all-mail voting into a partisan issue could have changed the in-person and mail-in turnout by political affiliation.

The President's campaign is still in the courts, arguing that the election was stolen, but we should note that none of the states where the Trump administration is pursuing lawsuits (Michigan, Pennsylvania) or recounts (Wisconsin) mail ballots to all voters. The claims being made about those states are not related to all-mail voting.

But how secure is all-mail voting?

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is a bipartisan organization that connects state legislators, provides research to state legislators, and provides a voice for state legislatures in Washington D.C. In their research on all-mail voting, the NCSL describes the following security measures relevant to mail-in ballots:

  • Hand-marked paper is considered the most secure form of ballot. They serve as their own paper trail and the hand-marks and signatures can be examined and easily audited as needed.

  • Risk-limiting audits - RLAs compare randomized samples of ballots to the vote tally to ensure correct outcomes.

  • Bi-partisan staff - Polling places and other election facilities are run by staff with diverse ideological commitments and political affiliations.

  • Physical security and chain of custody - Election facilities have to adhere to minimum security guidelines and ballots are handled in a chain of custody as they are gathered, transported, stored, and counted.

  • Voter identity is verified by comparing the signature on the ballot to the signature on file. Locks that can only be opened by bi-partisan teams, log books for tracking all interactions with the ballots, etc.

  • Ballot tracking systems allow voters to see when a ballot has been mailed to them, and follow up on the status of their vote after sending it back.

  • Sometimes ballot envelopes are barcoded to the voter to create a one-to-one pair. Prevents voting twice by the same individual.

  • Sometimes precinct teams and staff members are limited by statute the number of ballots any one worker can collect to reduce the feasibility of widespread fraud.

  • Legal consequences for tampering or mishandling.

I voted by mail this year

I voted by mail this year. I'm not in an all-mail voting state or precinct, so I requested my ballot. After I filled it out and mailed it back, I received a notification that the election authority had invalidated by ballot because my signature didn't match the one in their database.

I had to sign an affidavit in front of a notary public and send it in to have my ballot re-validated. I was annoyed at the inconvenience, but it wasn't any more time out of my day than if I'd just voted in person on election day.

Our elections are not perfect, but my detour to the notary public is one small, but personal reminder to me that we have elections that mean something, and the systems we've put in place to protect their integrity work.

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