What Letters to Santa Can Teach Us about Mail-in Voting
If we wish to have a fair and safe election during a pandemic, the U.S. Post Office is up to the task
By Brett Pelham, PhD
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, questions have been raised about mail-in voting. Opponents of mail-in voting argue that it is open to widespread fraud. They also argue that, even if mail-in voting were reliable, it would overwhelm the struggling United States Post Office (USPS). Neither of these claims is true. Let’s begin with the USPS.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) Can Handle Mail-In Voting. In December of 2019, the United States Postal Service handled about 15 billion pieces of holiday mail. That’s 15 billion, with a B. I’m pretty sure they can handle 50–140 million mail-in ballots spread out over several weeks in September, October, and early November. Of course, they can’t do so very quickly if the current Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, keeps slowing down U.S. mail delivery. DeJoy is a major Trump campaign donor who has political and financial conflicts of interest running the USPS.
Mail-In Voting Will Save Lives. It’s hard to say exactly how many lives will be saved by mail-in rather than in-person voting. We don’t yet know how many people will vote in person this November, or how well in-person voters will follow safety guidelines. But if my observations at grocery stores have any validity, there will be millions of voters who fail to maintain a safe distance between themselves and others, and there will be millions more who fail to wear the tight-fitting multi-layered masks that really work. This is an easily avoided public health risk.
If voting by mail involved mailing ballots made of ice cream, I’d strongly oppose it. Let me explain. Opponents of mail-in voting argue that if we can safely buy groceries in person, we can safely cast votes in person. But this analogy is deeply misleading. First, it is impractical to get your milk and frozen vegetables delivered by mail. This is why most people grocery shop in person. And those who are at high risk of dying from COVID-19 can send their grandkids to grocery shop for them. This is not possible at the polls. Further, grocery store traffic is spread out over many days. In-person voting is not. This guarantees much more crowded conditions at the polls than at the supermarket. This will only get worse as more polling places become unavailable and as more of the senior citizens who so often serve as poll workers avoid such hazardous work. In most U.S. states, in-person voting on November 3 should be an act of last resort.
Mail-in Voting Will Maximize Voter Participation. Because we cannot create enough places to vote in person during a pandemic, voting by mail is the only viable alternative. Despite all the bad press the post office gets, they select their workers very carefully. And the USPS is highly innovative. For example, if you want your kid to send a letter to Santa and get a return letter in the mail, the USPS has a clever and inexpensive system for that. If those of us who celebrate Christmas can trust the USPS to handle mail addressed to “Santa, North Pole,” we can trust them to do their jobs during a deadly pandemic. If you’ve ever mailed in a mortgage payment or received prescription drugs in the mail, you were trusting the same highly reliable postal workers who would deliver mail-in ballots.
Mail-In Voting Will Be Highly Reliable. Routine mail loss is probably less than 0.5%, and it’d surely be much lower than that for mail-in ballots. A lot of “lost” mail gets lost because of poor handwriting or customer error (e.g., “Satan, North Ploe”). Mail-in ballots are pre-addressed, and postal workers would quickly recognize where local mail-in ballots go. The total number of valid places mail-in ballots can go is also a tiny fraction of all U.S. addresses. It will be easy for the USPS to get mail-in ballots where they should go. Further, many of the same safeguards that prevent voter fraud at the polls are used with mail-in voting. Mail-in voting requires people to offer their signatures, and these signatures are checked against voter records. Voter impersonation fraud is a myth designed to suppress the vote among the disenfranchised.
Other Protections Against Mail-In Voter Fraud Already Exist. President Trump and his base cite a recent case in Paterson, New Jersey in which the results of a mail-in election are being questioned. In that election, as many as 19% of mail-in ballots were apparently marked as invalid. Some mail-in ballots seem to have been submitted in large bundles (which is illegal), and others seem to have been delivered to the mail by candidates in the races in question, which is also illegal. This rare case is going to court precisely because there are plenty of laws that prevent voter fraud. But even in this rare case, it is not yet clear what percentage of votes were fraudulent. Mail-in votes are declared invalid, for example, if they are submitted late. The same thing happens if you try to vote in person on the Wednesday after an election. That’s not fraud. It’s tardiness.
For concerns about voter impersonation fraud to be valid in a national election, there would have to be widespread coordination between fraudsters in many states. Further, for this to hurt Trump, this kind of fraud would have to favor Democrats. Ironically, it is the same party leaders who have vigorously defended gerrymandering who now argue that we must take extreme steps to guarantee the sanctity of the vote. If you are unaware of how hard Republican party leaders have fought to promote gerrymandering across the country, I have one word for you: Hofeller. Trump has no problem with rigging election outcomes. But he is adamantly against making voting safer.
Rather than being concerned about voter fraud, President Trump is surely concerned about the polls, which have him well behind Joe Biden in the very large majority of swing states. Because of the flawed electoral college system, Trump could still lose the popular vote and win in November, as he did in 2016. One way in which this may happen is misinformation and voter suppression. Delaying or disrupting mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic is just one weapon in Trump’s well-stocked arsenal. Voters cannot allow the pandemic that Trump has so badly bungled to allow him to steal the 2020 election. So if you do not know you’ll be getting a mail-in ballot soon, request an absentee ballot. Or, if you know you can do so safely, vote early. Whatever you must do to be sure your vote counts, I hope you agree that our democracy is worth it.