Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

In Defense of Mail-In BallotsA Step Toward More Equitable Elections

By Hannah DrexlerPublished December 19, 2020

Six mailboxes of different styles rest on a post.
Mail-in ballots offer the promising possibility of more equitable elections in the future of the United States. They are also cost effective and offer the same safety as traditional voting methods. Mail-in ballots promise the United States a stronger democracy and should be embraced rather than vilified.

The mail-in ballot has a history almost as long as that of the United States. The first absentee ballot can be traced back to the colonial period during which men were allowed to vote from home so they could protect their properties from attacks by Native Americans. During the Civil War, there was another expansion of absentee ballots, catalyzed by President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Soldiers were allowed to cast their ballots from the field, assuring their voices would be heard in Lincoln’s re-election race. In 1974, the absentee ballot evolved. Washington State became the first state in the Union to approve the use of the No-Excuse Absentee ballot, now commonly known as the mail-in ballot. The West coast of the United States was a prime location for the birth of the mail-in ballot: it had large rural areas, a pioneering attitude, and was a new addition to the Union, which gave it more room to innovate. After Washington, several other Western states followed, including California in 1978, which is popularly and incorrectly cited as the first state to offer mail-in voting. Due in no small part to COVID-19 considerations, No-Excuse Mail-in Voting is permitted today in all but five states – Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. The mail-in ballot process is convenient and secure, making it a valuable alternative to voting in person that should not be disregarded.

The 2020 mail-in ballot process is relatively simple. Most voters must apply online or through the mail, or at their local election office. The term ‘most’ refers to the fact that several states mail ballots to all of their registered voters, namely Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. Once a voter’s mail in ballot application has been processed, a ballot is sent in the mail for the voter to then return once completed, either through the postal system or –in some states – via a ballot drop box. In many locales, voters can also return their ballots to their local elections office in person. 

The mail-in ballot was a prime source of controversy during the 2020 election cycle, largely driven by President Donald Trump’s public hostility toward the method of voting. On April 8, 2020, the President tweeted, “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state-wide mail-in voting… Tremendous potential for voter fraud.” Political commentators since have expressed worries that mail-in ballots will increase electoral fraud, claiming that the system will lead to impersonation, ballot theft, and deception. There is some evidence of election fraud claims: in 2019, a North Carolina political operative working on behalf of Republican Mark Harris collected absentee ballots and tampered with them before turning them in, a scheme now known as ballot harvesting. But much evidence suggests that this event is an anomaly; mail-in ballots are just as secure, if not more so, than voting in person.

Colorado Elections Director Judd Choate has argued that vote-by-mail actually reduces instances of voter fraud. People who vote in person often do not update their addresses after moving, according to Choate, meaning that the elections office may supply voters with inaccurate ballots. Jurisdictions with mail in voters, in contrast, have to constantly maintain correct voter addresses to assure that people receive the correct ballot. Further, as reported by Washington State’s Director of Elections, of 3.2 million ballots cast in Washington, only 0.004% may have been fraudulent. This miniscule figure is made more impressive by the fact that Washington is one of the states mentioned above that sends a ballot to every registered voter in the state. The Heritage Foundation has found similarly convincing evidence in favor of mail-in voting. Of the roughly 1,100 cases of convicted cases of voter fraud that the Foundation has tallied on its website, only 143 have involved the use of absentee ballots. The point here is not to say that small amounts of voter fraud are okay; of course, any fraudulent activity in relation to an election is bad. But, mail-in voting is clearly performing with no less integrity than the in-person system it works alongside. 

Mail-in voting also brings a wealth of advantages, making it a worthy addition to the United States’ electoral toolkit. Mail-in voting is cost-effective. Between 1995-1997 in Oregon, counties saved over one million dollars by hosting three special elections using vote-by-mail. Of course, local governments will be able to decide what to do with their savings, but one may imagine that money being used to further election accessibility and security goals. Mail-in voting also boosts voter turnout. According to a study conducted by Stanford University, mail in voting encourages higher rates of turnout among blue-collar workers, voters without a high school diploma, less wealthy voters, and voters of color. Political participation in America is shockingly low, and in the 2016 presidential election, only 61.4% of the voting-age population reported casting a ballot, according to the November supplement of the United States’ Current Population Survey. To increase voter turnout, officials will have to think creatively about solutions that give citizens flexibility and time to gather informed information about candidates and cast their ballots. Mail-in voting is one solution that accomplishes this objective. 

Finally, COVID-19 has revealed the necessity of no-excuse absentee ballots. Packed crowds and long lines are dangerous during a pandemic known to spread through airborne particles created even by breathing. COVID-19 is an even greater concern to people with pre-existing conditions and elderly citizens. Further, this disease is especially dangerous for people of color, who have been shown to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to barriers to quality healthcare. Poorer Americans too have suffered COVID-19 death and case counts much higher than their population numbers would indicate they should. Mail-in voting is one of the best ways to protect the electoral voices of America’s vulnerable populations. And, vulnerable populations like low-income Americans and people of color will not stop being vulnerable after COVID-19 goes away. They will still be disproportionately burdened by voter suppression tactics, one of which is hosting Election Day on a Tuesday, a workday. Voters with strict work schedules, and who lack the privilege of taking a vacation day to cast their vote, may have difficulty voting traditionally. Mail-in ballots promise flexibility and an easier path to voting; they should be championed by anyone who believes in free and fair elections.