President Trump and his hyper-partisan Republican allies have been attacking proposals to vote by mail in November. The reason has nothing to do with honest concerns about this system for voting, which has gotten high marks in the handful of states where it has already been implemented—and which offers an option for a safe, high-turnout national election even as the coronavirus pandemic lingers, or diminishes and returns in the fall. Trump, who lost the 2016 election by 2.9 million votes and prevailed only because of the antidemocratic Electoral College, fears a high-turnout election might not favor him.
But the American people understand that election procedures aren’t supposed to be enacted to help or hinder particular politicians.
So it is that, for all of Trump’s ranting about the supposed perils of voting by mail, the American people love the idea. Democrats need to recognize this reality. Instead of bending to the president, they can demand in coming stimulus negotiations that Trump and the Republicans bend—knowing that the numbers are on their side.
The latest Harvard-Harris survey, which was conducted April 14–16, asked 2,394 voters, “Currently three states (Oregon, Washington, and Colorado) conduct their elections completely by mail. Would you support a decision to conduct the 2020 Presidential election entirely by mail in all 50 states?”
Seventy-two percent of those who answered said “yes.”
Just 28 percent said “no.”
“Voting entirely by mail in all 50 states” is a more militant plan than voting rights advocates are proposing. The right fix must be more flexible, with support for early voting and, where possible, safe in-person voting, as well as no-excuses absentee balloting. (A number of states currently require voters requesting an absentee ballot to provide an excuse for why they won’t be able to vote in person on Election Day.) There also has to be an understanding that states will have different approaches in a federal system. But planning for a massive increase in voting by mail, and paying for the change, is a necessary reform that has immense popular appeal.
The Harvard-Harris numbers are consistent with other surveys that have been done since Trump started trying to discredit voting by mail with outbursts like, “Mail ballots, they cheat. Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters. They go collect them. They are fraudulent in many cases. They have to vote. They should have voter ID, by the way.” The president’s Republican allies have tried to present more coherent critiques of voting by mail, but the polls suggest they are not getting far with what are broadly understood to be unproven and frankly outlandish claims.
A Democracy Corps poll of 2,000 people in 16 battleground states, which was conducted in early April on behalf of the nonpartisan Center for Voter Information, found that 73 percent of those surveyed favored no-excuse absentee voting—with 85 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents, and 59 percent of Republicans supporting the idea. Asked about the ambitious reform of having everyone in their state vote by mail, 68 percent responded favorably—with 83 of Democrats, 68 percent of independents, and 51 percent of Republicans expressing approval.
“We are witnessing a giant shift in American’s perceptions towards absentee voting and voting by mail,” Page Gardner, the founder and board chair of the Center for Voter Information, told Newsweek. “The pandemic has altered how people want to vote.”
Democrats in Congress, and in the states, should forge their negotiating strategies based on this new thinking.
Voting by mail is a winning idea that is a necessary part of any strategy to ensure that the November election does not degenerate into the chaos that was seen in Wisconsin, where Republicans refused to go along with a plan by Democratic Governor Tony Evers to conduct the state’s April 7 election with absentee ballot and voting by mail options.
In some states, governors are taking immediate steps to implement voting by mail for elections that are likely to be conducted as the battle against Covid-19 continues. In New York, for instance, it was reported this week that Governor Andrew Cuomo would issue an executive order to send ballots to all registered voters so they can vote by mail in the elections scheduled for June 23.
But to assure that the nationwide November elections are safe and fair, Congress has to step up. Congressional Democratic leaders should have bargained harder for necessary action in the initial measures to respond to Covid-19—especially the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was approved in late March and the supplemental economic aid package that Democrats and Republicans agreed to this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer now say that “we will advance CARES 2, which must be transformative and far-reaching.” They’ll face steadily greater resistance from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, however. As such, the next negotiations may be the last chance to take needed steps in time for the fall. This is why Democrats must make the defense of democracy an unequivocal demand.
Two interventions are immediately necessary.
The US Postal Service must be fully funded and fully supported.
This will sustain the essential work the postal service is now doing and, as the American Postal Workers Union notes, will be necessary as the USPS’s “important role continues to grow as our elections move to vote-by-mail.” “As millions of Americans seek shelter in their homes, postal workers continue to carry out their vital work and deliver for the United States of America every day,” APWU president Mark Dimondstein pointed out after the CARES Act was approved, “but the White House has failed to support these efforts. In the recent negotiations over the stimulus package, the administration wouldn’t spare a dime to ensure that this essential service continues in the months ahead.”
On April 14, the Federal Postal Coalition called on Congress “to enact provisions in the next stimulus bill that would provide: provide [sic] an immediate ‘public service’ appropriation to the USPS of at least $25 billion; quarterly emergency ‘public service’ appropriations during Fiscal Year 2021 to cover the difference between postage revenues and total USPS expenses; treatment of the USPS as a covered employer in the program funding the cost of COVID-19-related sick leave and family medical leave that was enacted in the Families First legislation; and equal treatment for postal employees in legislation that authorizes and funds hazard pay for frontline workers in this crisis.” These are vital first steps that are needed to save the postal service and to prepare it for the heavy lift of implementing broader absentee balloting and vote-by-mail systems.
States must be provided with the necessary funds to implement vote-by-mail strategies and other election reforms.
The initial CARES Act included $400 million to help states address voting issues that could arise during the coronavirus pandemic and in its immediate aftermath. But, noted The New York Times, “The figure falls far short of what state officials and voting rights experts have said is needed to ensure a safe and accurate count if the virus keeps millions of people away from polling places in primary elections and on Election Day. The $400 million in the stimulus package is one-fifth of the $2 billion that voting experts said was needed and that some Democrats had sought.”
The Brennan Center for Justice developed the initial $2 billion estimate. But that was just for the November election, and it was developed at a point when the full impact of the pandemic was only beginning to be understood. Now, the center “recommends that Congress make available at least double our preliminary estimate to ensure all elections between now and November are free, fair, safe, and secure.” That’s a lot of money. But it is a small amount compared with necessary outlays to cover health care costs and address mass unemployment. Savvy members of Congress have come to recognize that there’s no question the money is needed. On April 17, House Administration Committee chair Zoe Lofgren and House Oversight and Reform Committee chair Carolyn Maloney joined House Administration Subcommittee on Elections chair Marcia Fudge and Representatives Jamie Raskin and Stephen Lynch to demand a hard line for democracy.
“Without decisive action by Congress,” they argued, “the coronavirus crisis may exacerbate dangerous impediments for voters, including closed or restricted access to polling places and public health restrictions that deter voter participation—all of which could result in depressed voter turnout that undermines the will of the American people and degrades confidence in our elections.”