The battle over voting by mail flared up over the last week, thanks in part to some presidential tweets that, as they often do, have generated more heat than light.
On May 20, President Trump tweeted: “Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election. This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path.”
On May 26, he 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.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, Michigan hadn’t sent out 7.7 million ballots — it announced plans to send out 7.7 million absentee-ballot applications. Trump replaced the original tweet with one correcting the error, but it still included the claim that he would “ask to hold up funding” to Michigan for sending out absentee-ballot applications. Ask whom? It wasn’t clear, and he dropped the idea shortly thereafter.
As for the tweet that mail-in ballots would be “substantially fraudulent”? That’s the claim that prompted Twitter to issue its first ever presidential fact-check. It may be unwise for any social-media platform to get into the business of fact-checking politicians, and it was especially odd to single out this tweet, rather than the deranged tweets suggesting MSNBC host Joe Scarborough is a murderer.
If you strained hard enough, you could come up with a somewhat plausible defense: The word “substantially” may mean largely or significantly. Maybe he meant the latter? And since elections are sometimes decided by a very small number of votes, any amount of voter fraud is significant. That reasonable defense was dashed Thursday night when the president tweeted Thursday evening that “MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE. IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY.”
To cut past the confusion and misinformation, it’s important to keep in mind three things in the debate over mail-in voting.
The first is that the November elections will very likely be a “mostly mail” election whether anyone likes it or not — even if no laws are changed. Twenty-nine states already have no-excuse absentee voting, including the states where control of the White House and the Senate will be decided: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Montana, and Maine. In April, when Wisconsin held its Democratic primary, only one-quarter of voters cast ballots in person on Election Day. If voters are concerned about the coronavirus, and there’s every reason to believe it will still be a threat in November, the overwhelming majority will choose early mail-in or curbside voting.
The second thing to keep in mind is that expanded mail-in and early-voting will not necessarily hurt Republicans in November. The GOP just won an all-mail special election in California. Colorado Republican Cory Gardner won his first term in the Senate in 2014 in an all-mail election. In 2018, 79 percent of ballots were cast in Arizona by mail. Republican governor Doug Ducey won re-election by 14.2 points even as Republican senator Martha McSally lost by 2.4 points.
So Republicans can win in mail or mostly-mail elections, and at any rate it’s unlikely that many states will transition to California-style all-mail states before November. The logistical hurdles are too high, but there will be an increase in absentee- and early-voting nationwide. If Republicans were solely interested in winning, they would be more concerned about a significant sliver of elderly voters — a Republican-leaning demographic — not voting because of concerns about catching the virus than about the possibility of a slight increase in the small number of illegitimate votes.
And that brings us to the third point, which is that there are real and legitimate concerns about voter fraud and the best way to safely and securely expand voting options in the fall. This year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Arizona’s ban on “ballot harvesting” — the practice of third-party collection of mail-in ballots. Critics of ballot harvesting are concerned that the practice opens the door to voter fraud and intimidation, not to mention the spread of the virus if ballot collectors are going door to door. Arizona’s attorney general is trying to get the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which could affect more than 20 other states that have similar laws.
In Congress, meanwhile, the fight is between Democrats who want to force states to adopt a uniform policy on how to conduct elections and Republicans who are adamantly opposed to a federal takeover over the elections process but are not opposed to providing more money for election assistance.
As much as the president’s Twitter feed and media coverage may make it difficult to see, that’s where the real debate over balloting stands.