The Fight Over Voting By Mail

Tony Quinn
Political Analyst

A huge battle is brewing over the use of mail in balloting for the November election.  Republicans, led by President Trump, believe mail voting is a dagger aimed at killing their party, Democrats believe mail ballots are a vast new source of Democratic votes.  Intense as this battle is, they are both wrong.

Mail ballots have become so popular that two thirds of California voters are permanent absentee voters and receive a postage paid ballot at election time without even asking for it.  Democrats are encouraging the use of mail ballots, even going to court to mandate them, while GOP states like Texas and North Carolina restrict them only to actual absentee voters. 

Early on mail balloting actually helped Republicans.  In the 1970s, the Democratic legislature loosed California absentee voting laws to allow anyone to cast a mail ballot.  In 1982, Republicans ran a mail ballot effort on behalf of GOP gubernatorial candidate George Deukmejian, who actually won the governorship on the basis of the mail ballots having lost the election day balloting.  The same thing happened in 1990 with the election of a Republican attorney general based on late mail ballots.

Older voters especially like mail in voting, it avoids the need to find a voting location and is as easy as paying a bill.  In every California election, older and more Republican voters vote early, by mail, and in large numbers.  In the March primary, some 4.3 million mail ballots were received by counties before Election Day, and showed a more Republican bent than Election Day ballots, and those that arrived after Election Day. 

It is the post Election Day ballots that drive GOP fears, and the practice of “ballot harvesting.” Thanks to a law passing in 2016, party workers may collect anyone’s ballot and deliver them to the counties.  This has come to be known as “ballot harvesting,” and was used to great effect by Democrats in 2018 to deliver late ballots to counties and defeat several Republican incumbents long after Election Day.

Because of the Democratic success with vote harvesting, Trump has led GOP resistance to mail voting.  “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” he said in April.  On hearing that California will go to all mail balloting in November, he tweeted: “So in California, the Democrats, who fought like crazy to get all mail-in only ballots, and succeeded.  It’s all rigged out there. These votes must not count.”  It appears Trump will go to court to have California’s November election thrown out.

Mail voting does not work well for Republicans because they do not know how to use it.  Democrats have mastered campaigning by social media, and using party workers to collect ballots.  There is nothing fraudulent about this; Republicans simply do not know how to do it.  Their failure is a failure to master modern campaigning.

While there is no direct evidence of fraud in vote harvesting, there is a potential for misuse of the system.   Republicans point to two problems in current elections, and these are justified concerns.

In 2017, a conservative group Judicial Watch sued California claiming that in many counties the voter rolls included more adults than lived in the counties.   This is because California counties were maintaining two lists of voters, active voters, and a list of inactive voters who had not cast a ballot in recent elections.  Judicial Watch obtained a settlement that California will purge its rolls of inactive voters.

Democrats are as irrational in their opposition to voter purges as Republicans are about fraud.  But counties should periodically purge their rolls to remove deadwood; there is no reason to mail ballots to people who are no longer alive.  There is no evidence that periodic voter list purges, or the requirement for photo IDs when voting, another thing Democrats hate, actually impairs voting.

In 2018, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, who was later elected governor, purged several hundred thousand names from Georgia’s rolls.  Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor who lost narrowly (and is now auditioning for vice president), claimed the purge cost her the election.  But in fact, she received 578,000 more votes than the Democrat for governor four years earlier, and the turnout in 2018 was up by 1.4 million over 2014.  So the purge seems to have had little impact on actual voters; when people want to vote they will register and vote.

Republicans also claim another problem with mail balloting is that millions of these ballots have disappeared.  According to a report from the US Election Assistance Commission, in 2016 some 6.5 million mailed ballots were misdirected or unaccounted for. This appears to be more evidence of bad voter rolls than anything else, but it is possible many people received their ballots but just ignored them and did not vote.  Despite this high number, there is no evidence of any of these ballots being fraudulently cast.

In fact, mail ballots may well be less susceptible to fraud than in-person voting.  That is because the mail ballot must be signed by the voter; the reason it takes so long to count these ballots is that election clerks must verify each signature against the voter’s signature when registering.

Despite this Republicans around the country are trying to stop mail voting by depressing the vote by making it harder for people, especially in heavily Democratic big cities, to cast a ballot.  And it has not worked; basically it just irritates Democratic voters.  Last month Republicans in Wisconsin forced  an in-person election despite the worries about the pandemic.  They resisted Democratic calls to delay the election or make it all mail balloting.  The GOP employed this tactic because there was a very important election for a Republican Supreme Court justice on the ballot. Republicans forced Milwaukee voters to stand in long lines to vote at a tiny number of voting locations.

Well, for all their efforts, it blew up in their face; Democrats came out in droves anyway and voted the Republican justice out of office.  Efforts to curtail popular voting by mail are likely to end up with the same result if Republicans go down this path in the fall.

Finally, some Republicans have blamed their poor showing in California on illegal aliens voting massively for Democrats.  “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump said in 2016, explaining how he lost the popular vote by near three million ballots.

The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence this is true and overwhelming evidence it is not.  If you deduct non-citizens from the estimate of adults in California, the number of eligible citizens is well below the actual number of registered voters.  It is well known that illegal people stay in the shadows; they are not going to register to vote and open themselves for perjury prosecutions and deportations.  People who are not registered cannot vote, period.

The Republican problem is not massive voter fraud, or that vote by mail increases fraud, it does not.  The Republicans’ problem in California and now in growing numbers of southwestern states is that demographic change is killing the party.

Fifty years ago, California’s population was 78 percent Anglo-white, and Ronald Reagan was governor and Richard Nixon twice carried California for president.  Today it is under 40 percent Anglo-white.  

Since the GOP’s support for an anti-immigrant ballot measure in 1994, the party has been on a long slow death rattle; perhaps one might say a long slow suicide, given their alienation of middle class non-white voters in this state. 

Trying to slow mail balloting will not succeed; it is too popular and may be necessary given the possibility of the pandemic this fall.  Trump may be right, the mail vote could be the end of the Republican Party, and if it is it will be their own fault.

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