Here’s a nightmare scenario for democracy: In November 2020, COVID-19 is still a major threat, whether as the lingering effects of the pandemic we see now or a likely second wave, forcing state and local leaders to make an impossible choice between holding the elections and risking the health of millions, or canceling them and risking democracy itself.
Universal voting by mail, which is already conducted in several states by millions of people, seems like the obvious solution. People who are against this idea, such as the President of the United States (who voted by absentee in the last election), make the counterargument that voting by mail invites fraud.
Who is right?
There’s two ways of answering that question. First, there’s what an overwhelming amount of evidence actually tells us, or “factual truth.” But then there’s what people feel is true, despite all of the evidence. That’s “emotional truth,” or in the words of Stephen Colbert, “truthiness.”
In this case, as in so many others, factual truth and emotional truth are at odds.
The factual truth about universal vote-by-mail is that it works and it’s pretty safe from fraud. Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii all conduct most or all of their elections by mail. Oregon has been doing so since 1998. Cases of fraud have been incredibly rare.
That’s the actual, factual truth. That’s reality.
But somehow, for some people, it doesn’t feel true at all.
I’ve been thinking about why that is. I think part of it is that because voting fraud is so rare that when it does happen, it tends to make the news and become a big story. Think about the Bridgeport absentee ballot controversy that happened last year, in which Bridgeport mayor and felon Joe Ganim narrowly lost the machine vote in his primary with Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, but overwhelmingly won the absentee ballots to put him over the top. In the days following, Hearst Connecticut did some digging and found absentee voters who felt pressured to vote for Ganim, voters who didn’t remember requesting an absentee ballot, and plenty of errors in the city records. That was a big deal, even though a judge eventually decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to re-run the election.
Does that mean that absentee ballots or general voting by mail is crooked?
Man, it sure feels like it. It’s not hard to picture political operatives “helping” the sick and the elderly fill out their ballots to harvest votes for their candidate. The scenario that I worry about is a domineering family member intercepting ballots and filling them out for everyone in a household, or standing over someone as they fill theirs out.
These are lurid images. The secret ballot is vital to democracy, and voting by mail seems to invite all kinds of ways to undermine that.
But the evidence we have suggests it doesn’t happen. Maybe we need better evidence! Or maybe we need to listen to the experiences of the states where voting by mail is routine, and understand that there are ways to make this process more secure.
Better records would be a start. But so would easy ways for election officials to compare signatures on ballots to signatures on, say, state IDs. If someone does need help filling out a ballot, a nonpartisan election official could be that person. Campaign workers should never be allowed to check out dozens of ballots and deliver them to voters, as was the case in Bridgeport.
States should be investigating all-mail voting seriously, and finding out what it would take to transition to this kind of an election in time for November. It’s either that or risk an election debacle like what happened recently in Wisconsin. At least 50 people who worked at the polls or voted in that election have since been diagnosed with COVID-19.
But states should also be working to reassure the public that voting through the mail is safe. It is true, but it also has to feel true. Otherwise, we could be facing an election that voters feel isn’t legitimate, and that won’t end anywhere good.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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