Washington

America is woefully unprepared for mail-in voting. The result will be messy and divisive.

A surge of mail-in voting could sow chaos in this fall’s U.S. election, dividing the country and handing Donald Trump a pretext to cling to office if he loses

Allen Straith has never voted by mail before. But when the 32-year-old customer service agent learned his wife was pregnant with their third child and realized COVID-19 would mean unsanitary voting booths and massive queues, Straith decided it would be better to play it safe, avoid the crowds and register for an absentee ballot.

It wasn’t easy. He searched online for the application, but couldn’t find it. He shrugged it off for a few weeks, until he noticed a Facebook post by the chair of a neighbouring county’s Democratic group. The post warned that the deadline to register for an absentee ballot in Tennessee’s congressional election was fast approaching. Straith downloaded the application, assuming it was the same for November’s general election. It wasn’t—different application, different deadline.

Now, even with the right paperwork, Straith is still worried. Not about fraud, or whether his ballot will arrive on time, or even whether his vote will count—Jefferson County, where he lives, is so deep-red, they haven’t elected a Democrat since the Civil War era. Instead, Straith believes this year’s election will further divide the nation.

“In a normal year, if this wasn’t 2020 and Donald Trump wasn’t in the White House,” he says, “I wouldn’t be worried.” Straith remembers the run-up to the 2016 election, when Trump loudly set expectations for failure by proclaiming the elections would be rigged. This year, if Trump loses, Straith believes he’ll go back to that well, “starting an uproar” over the massive increase of people expected to vote by mail: “He’s gonna say, ‘That’s why it’s rigged.’ Because people mailed in votes.”

READ MORE: Buy Alberta? Prepare for a civil war? What Americans think in the age of Trump.

Trump is undeniably laying the groundwork to scapegoat his potential loss on the inevitable surge of mail-in ballots. His Twitter feed is rife with such paranoid messages, like one from June 22 that warned millions of phony ballots, printed by foreign countries, would be “THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” That came one day after Attorney General William Barr told Fox News that mail-in ballots would “open the floodgates of potential fraud,” undermining public confidence in elections. “That could take the country to a very dark place,” he warned.

But the public isn’t on the same page. Most Americans understand the health concerns that have led to skyrocketing demand for mail-in ballots: according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 70 per cent of respondents believe voting by mail should be widely available before the presidential election. And while 58 per cent of respondents believe Trump will try and ignore or overturn the results of the election, fully 62 per cent—including four out of 10 Republicans—would approve of the U.S. military forcibly removing him if necessary, according to an Abacus Data survey of 1,500 Americans, provided exclusively to Maclean’s.

The problem: America isn’t ready.

Doomsayers point to this spring’s primary elections, tests that several states resoundingly failed. In Georgia, not only did glitchy voting machines leave people waiting in line for hours, but mail-in ballots were slow to reach many of the record 1.5 million residents who asked for them; they had no idea whether their votes got back in time to be counted. Other states were unprepared for increases in mail-in applications: Iowa’s multiplied tenfold; an official in Pennsylvania called the state’s 1.6 million requests “off the charts.” Some states, such as New Jersey, have taken the unprecedented step of skipping applications altogether and sending actual ballots to every registered voter, while others—such as Straith’s home state of Tennessee—are fighting vicious court battles to squash the trend.

***

In short, it is chaos. In the 2016 election, 33 million Americans, comprising 24 per cent of the turnout, voted by mail. Some predict 2020’s percentage to balloon to more than 50, and potentially as high as 70. And elections officials are not prepared.

The United States, unlike Canada, lacks a single, cohesive agency for administering elections; they’re instead handled on a hyper-local level, down to the jurisdiction, of which there are more than 10,000 across the country. That’s 10,000 different groups organizing their own resources, staffing and communications. The added cost of COVID protective supplies, such as plastic barriers and hand sanitizer, has disrupted plans and budgets. In March, Congress earmarked US$400 million to help. But elections experts estimate the nation may require as much as $2 billion.

The money wouldn’t go just to personal protective equipment. It would help with staffing and organization, which hints at the biggest problem facing these 10,000 jurisdictions: they won’t be able to count mailed ballots quickly enough. Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, worries the treatment of absentee ballots “could provide a basis for both legal challenges and political challenges to the results of the election.” If the results are close, one could imagine a repeat of Bush v. Gore in 2000, when a narrow U.S. Supreme Court decision ordered Florida to halt its recount of votes—thousands of faulty punch-card ballots—awarding George W. Bush the election and dividing the nation. Now picture that starring Donald Trump. Hasen points to this year’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, where officials scrambled for over a week to count every absentee vote. A candidate running to be the nominee for state auditor general, for example, trailed by tens of thousands of votes on election night; nine days later, she ended up winning.

RELATED: Who the real extremists are in America

Hasen fears something similar could happen in November. “Trump could be ahead on election night, only to see Joe Biden declared the winner a week later, which creates a very dangerous scenario—especially with the president claiming that absentee ballots are rife with fraud. You could imagine him saying, ‘Let’s stick with the votes we have right now; let’s stop the counting.’ ”

Hasen specializes in election law, and understood the legal and political ramifications of a pandemic weeks before most governments even closed their borders. On Feb. 28, he organized an academic conference called “Can American Democracy Survive the 2020 Elections?” Attendees drafted 14 recommendations for a range of institutions: election officials should enforce a cohesive absentee-ballot system and add extra in-person polling stations; the media should set realistic expectations for when results will be confirmed, which almost certainly won’t be election night; the federal government should create a clear, transparent and non-partisan communications channel, including an authoritative website and authenticated social channels; and Congress should offer additional funding for printing a surplus of mail-in ballots.

They’re not audacious requests, but the White House won’t support them. On May 27, Trump tweeted, “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.” In a bold move, employees at Twitter appended a fact-check label to Trump’s claim, essentially debunking the president’s lie. Days later, at a press conference, Trump doubled down while defending mailing in his own ballot to Florida: “I’m allowed to,” he said.

To Trump, mail-in ballots and absentee ballots are not the same thing. In reality, the two are different in name only; both require registration applications, are visually specific to each jurisdiction and are incredibly difficult to forge. Absentee ballots traditionally require an excuse as to why the individual cannot vote in person, whereas vote-by-mail, or VBM, means authorities automatically send applications to registered voters. (Five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah—employ VBM by default, meaning every registered voter automatically receives a ballot weeks before the election.) In terms of processing and counting, absentee and VBM ballots are virtually identical. Even before the pandemic hit, states that required an excuse to cast an absentee ballot were shifting to more lenient policies. Notably, four states controlled by Republican lawmakers—Tennessee, Texas, Missouri and Mississippi—aligned with Trump in the fight against expanding VBM.

Shelves for Democratic vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary are pictured at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s an unfounded belief that Dems benefit when more people vote (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

The reasons for this crusade are confusing. Ostensibly, Republicans are worried about fraud, believing mailed-in ballots to be more vulnerable. Rodney Davis, a Republican congressman from Illinois, wrote in an op-ed that too many states have outdated lists of registered voters, citing California as a prime example: Los Angeles County famously had more registered voters than citizens, and was forced to purge up to 1.5 million inactive voters in 2019. “Ballots would be mailed to addresses of individuals who have moved or passed away,” Davis wrote. “The new residents may not be eligible to vote but could see the ballots in the mail and try to vote anyway.”

Republicans are correct that mail-in ballots are more susceptible to fraud than ballots cast in person. But the difference is negligible, and fraud rarely happens, as almost every state requires safeguards such as signature matching. Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, and Charles Stewart III, a professor at MIT, pored over a database of about 250 million mailed-in votes over the past 20 years, and found just over 1,200 cases of voter fraud. “We are talking about an occurrence that translates to about 0.00006 per cent of total votes cast,” they wrote in a study.

The other common right-wing refrain is so-called “vote harvesting,” whereby political operatives collect ballots from seniors and immigrants, personally delivering the ballots and coercing them to vote a certain way. Generally speaking, this simply doesn’t happen. One prominent example from 2019 was a Republican operative in North Carolina who was caught collecting incomplete ballots he would personally fill out. But he was caught precisely because his county’s mail-in numbers looked so skewed: obvious cases of fraud tend to attract attention.

Vote harvesting is rare because it’s generally illegal for someone to handle another person’s ballot. (As ever, the exact rules vary by state.) This broad ethical concept is well understood by anyone whose job it is to help Americans vote, such as David Mivasair, an American rabbi living in Hamilton, Ont., who chairs the Hamilton-Burlington-Niagara chapter of Democrats Abroad. One of his main jobs is simplifying America’s Byzantine mail-in voting system for his region’s 1,000-odd expats. “I just got off of 2½ hours of phone-banking,” he says. “We have started in June, to be sure that people can vote in November, because it’s that complicated.”

READ MORE: What Americans don’t know… should worry us

Still, even when the system appears to be working, it may not be. Mivasair recalls situations where expats “have mailed in their ballot in the preprinted, self-addressed envelope that came to them, with the ballot, to the board of elections supervisors, and had it come back to them after the election was over, stamped with something like, ‘Return to sender, addressee doesn’t exist.’ So that kind of raises some questions about voting by mail, doesn’t it?”

A cynic might suspect some governments, especially those led by Republicans, want to suppress mail-in voting and sow doubt about the process in the belief that Democrats benefit when more people are able to vote. Straith, in Tennessee, believes his state obscured the mail-in online application “by design, because the people that control the website were also the same people who didn’t want this to happen.”

But according to an expansive Stanford study published in April, mail-in voting doesn’t actually help the Dems. The researchers analyzed VBM data between 1988 and 2018 in California, Utah and Washington—three states that staggered their rollouts of VBM across counties. The authors were able to directly compare county turnouts before and after a generous mail-in option was created, and found that neither Democrats nor Republicans benefited significantly. One theory is that young voters, who skew Democratic, change addresses more frequently, while older (and more often Republican) voters are more likely to take advantage of a convenient mail-in option.

One point on which Republicans, Democrats, political scientists and activists all agree: there isn’t enough time to make the 2020 election run smoothly. The five states that use all-mail voting have honed their processes and updated registration lists over several years. States new to the system have to catch up in a few months. Strapped with insufficient budgets and nationwide lawsuits, America is wading into a messy, divisive, complicated election cycle the likes of which have never been seen before.

But what can be done? “We have to work with it,” says Mivasair. “There’s so much that needs to be done to make the system better, but meanwhile, this is what we have—we have to do it.”


This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Insufficient postage.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.