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Voting by Mail Pros and Cons

The explosive rise in mail-in voting has touched off a largely partisan debate about its efficacy and its susceptibility to abuse and fraud. This article examines the pros and cons of voting by mail.

At least 180 million Americans, more than three-fourths of the electorate, will be eligible to cast their ballots by mail in the 2020 general election. These are far higher numbers than in any previous election, and of course that is due to the coronavirus pandemic.

An Explosive Rise in Mail-In Voting

Aware that COVID-19 poses health risks to voters who cast ballots in the traditional fashion at polling places, officials have expanded the availability of mail-in voting in many states. As of early August, 34 states and the District of Columbia were allowing mail-in voting in varying degrees and many had eased their rules for mail voting/absentee voting.

For instance, the number of states mailing ballots to all registered voters this year has increased from five to seven plus the District of Columbia. Also, several states accounting for tens of millions of voters have either adopted new “no excuse necessary" rules to vote by mail or now accept “fear of coronavirus" as an excuse to apply for an absentee ballot and vote by mail.

The number of ballots cast by mail has been steadily increasing in recent years – according to the Pew Research Center, the number of ballots cast by mail has gone from 7.8% in 1996 to 20.9% in 2016 – and the number is certain to spike much higher this year.

The Debate: A Necessity or a Risk?

Proponents of mail-in voting say mail-in ballots are, first and foremost, a necessity during a pandemic. But they also claim there is a sufficient track record in states like Oregon and Washington, which have allowed universal mail-in voting for years without difficulty. Opponents say there have already been problems this year with mail-in voting for primaries, and question how prepared we are to handle a likely avalanche of mailed ballots as the Nov. 3 general election draws near.

Here is a deeper dive into the points both sides are making:

Mail-In Voting: Reasons For

  • Mail-in voting will save lives by allowing people to stay away from polling sites.
  • Documented cases of mail-ballot fraud are rare. The conservative Heritage Foundation examined the record in Oregon, which has conducted mail elections since 1998, and found 14 cases of attempted mail fraud out of 15.5 million ballots cast.
  • Mail-in voting increases voter participation, though not dramatically. A Stanford University study looking at mail-in voting in three states found it increased voting turnout by 2%.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that it favors one party over another. The same Stanford study noted above also found that the increased voting changed the magnitude of voting, and not the composition—it didn't favor any racial, age, or economic group.
  • It creates better informed votes by allowing voters more time to contemplate their votes, increasing down-ballot engagement.
  • Mail-in voting reduces the cost of recruiting and training poll workers.
  • It eases the task of finding suitable polling locations.

Mail-In Voting: Reasons Against

  • Voter registration rolls can be inaccurate. In January, the State of California and the County of Los Angeles agreed to remove up to 1.5 million inactive names from voter registration rolls to settle a lawsuit brought by the conservative organization Judicial Watch. The practice of sending ballots sent to people who died or moved away can lend itself to potential fraud.
  • Casting ballots outside the public eye may lend itself to voter impersonation and coercion.
  • Although supporters say fraud is rare, the likelihood of voter fraud is somewhat higher with mail ballots.
  • Mail ballots are often cast well ahead of Election Day, so voters may miss important late developments in campaigns that might otherwise influence their votes.
  • The experience in several state primaries this year (see below) casts doubt on how effectively voting by mail can be administered in November.
  • More things can go wrong with mailed balloting. The voter needs to get the ballot on time and return it on time. Even if ballots are received on time, they can be rejected for a variety of reasons, often clerical. In the 2016 Presidential Election, an estimated 4% of mailed ballots were not counted.

Several States' Experiences

Some states have been voting by mail for years. Others adopted the system just this year. Here are examples of how it is going:

The Vote-By-Mail Pioneer States

With the overwhelming passage of Ballot Measure 60 in 1998, Oregon became the first state to conduct its elections exclusively by mail. In 2005, Washington made all-mail voting optional for counties, which overwhelmingly embraced the idea. In the ensuing years, every county but one went to vote-by-mail. Then, in 2011, Washington officially went to statewide all-mail voting. In 2013, Colorado became the third state to adopt statewide vote-by-mail, closely followed that year by Utah. In 2019, Hawaii went to statewide vote-by-mail.

In all these states, polls continue to show strong support for mail voting by Democrats and Republicans alike with little evidence of fraud. In an effort to more accurately identify levels of election fraud in these states, the Brookings Institution recently examined data compiled by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has been tracking voter fraud for years. Brookings' conclusion: “There is surprisingly little voter fraud and not nearly enough to justify blocking vote-by-mail systems in a pandemic."

States That Have Adopted Mail Voting Systems This Year

In response to the pandemic, nearly half of all states have expanded access to mail ballots for their primaries. Some of these states have provisions requiring voters to cite a reason why they couldn't vote in person – illness or infirmity, inability to get to the polling site, travel commitment, etc. – but this year allowed fear of the coronavirus as an acceptable excuse. Some were more proactive, allowing voters to apply for ballots to be sent to them in the mail, and relaxing witness requirements when voters complete their ballots.

In some cases, these transitions have caused problems.

In Wisconsin, 9,000 requested ballots were never sent, others recorded as sent were never received, and thousands were postmarked too late to count.

In New Jersey, 9.6% of mail ballots cast in that state's May 12 local elections in 31 municipalities were rejected because signatures didn't match ones of file or they arrived too late.

In Pennsylvania, tens of thousands of votes were either not cast or not counted due to deadline confusion.

New York City's June 23 primary resulted in a flood of mailed ballots and the mishandling of tens of thousands of them. Of the 403,103 mail-in ballots for the city's Democratic primary, more than 84,000 were rejected – an astounding 21%.

Looking Ahead to the General Election

In early August, the Democrat-controlled Nevada Legislature passed a bill to become the eighth state to adopt universal vote-by-mail, intending to have it in place for the presidential election. President Donald Trump quickly denounced the action as an “illegal coup," and the next day, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee filed a lawsuit. “The RNC has a vital interest in protecting the ability of Republican voters to cast, and Republican candidates to receive, effective votes in Nevada elections and elsewhere," the suit stated.

Of course, this is only one instance of the fight that Trump and Republicans are waging over vote-by-mail. Trump has been ramping up his attack more strongly as Election Day nears, contending that mail voting is rife with fraud. While there is little evidence to support the mail fraud claim, there is evidence from the recent experiences in several states that rapid transition to broad vote-by-mail systems can produce many other problems.

On July 30, Trump suggested in a tweet that perhaps the election should be delayed. He was roundly criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for suggesting that a Constitutionally sacrosanct event should be postponed. Still, the prospect of potential chaos is real if election officials are buried in an avalanche of mailed ballots and can't get them counted on time to meet Electoral College deadlines.

The evidence suggests that voting by mail does work. But for it to work in November, state election officials must embark on a concerted public education campaign as early as possible to ensure all absentee voters/mail-in voters know what they need to do. Election officials and Secretary of State offices need to explain how to request a ballot and what the timelines are, such as how many days before the election people should mail their ballots.

The U.S. Postal Service (assuming it will be operating) will be under intense pressure of its own, so states should consider creating (and publicizing the locations of) drop boxes—a relatively easy way to ease the burden.

November's General Election may well be one of the most extraordinary elections in the history of the United States. We must make every effort to get every vote counted at the same time we're keeping everyone safe.

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