With Election Day just 37 days away, we are quickly approaching what will be one of the oddest presidential elections in American history due largely to COVID-19.
The pandemic has led to drastic changes in our everyday lives and is now altering how we approach elections. This shift has led to the U.S. considering a risky alternative to in-person voting this fall in the form of universal mail-in voting.
In an effort to address concerns over voting in a pandemic, many states have turned to universal mail-in voting or encouraging absentee voting to limit potential exposure to COVID-19 from voting in person.
Mail-in voting is nothing new for the U.S. We have used absentee ballots since 1864, and before the pandemic, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington all used universal mail-in voting in their elections.
The discussion around mail-in ballots has become split down party lines for this election. President Donald Trump has advocated against the use of mail-in voting and Democrats like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have voiced their support of the process.
“You can’t do the mail-in ballots because you’re going to have tremendous fraud,” Trump said.
While it is an exaggeration, he has a point. The system of mail-in voting is not without its faults.
From every election held between 2012-2018, 28.3 million absentee and universal mail-in ballots remain unaccounted for, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. This number represents roughly one-fifth of all mail-in ballots distributed for those elections.
The messy primaries in New York and New Jersey earlier in the year, both of which switched to universal mail-in voting, likely represent how November’s election will look if all states commit to universal mail-in voting.
In New Jersey’s primary elections, 40,800 ballots were discarded compared to just 5,176 ballots from 2016. In Paterson, New Jersey’s third-largest city, there were calls to invalidate the municipal elections because 3,190 mail-in ballots were disqualified — approximately 19 percent of all ballots received, according to NBC New York.
New York’s primaries did not fare much better. In New York City alone, more than 100,000 mail-in ballots were disqualified. This accounts for one-fifth of the ballots cast in the city, according to The Atlantic.
More than 534,000 mail-in ballots were disqualified during the primaries from 23 states, according to an August Washington Post article. A separate August report from NPR found more than 558,000 ballots were disqualified across 30 primaries this year.
There is also a significantly greater risk of your vote not being counted if you vote by mail, especially in the cities of battleground states, according to a Sept. 7 analysis of rejected ballots and absentee ballots from several battleground states by the Associated Press.
“If ballots are rejected at the same rate as during this year’s primaries, up to three times as many voters in November could be disenfranchised in key battleground states when compared to the last presidential election,” the analysis stated. “It could be even more pronounced in some urban areas where Democratic votes are concentrated and ballot rejection rates trended higher during this year’s primaries.”
The mail-in ballot system is a flawed system that presents a high risk of votes not counting and needs to be discussed as such. Voting precincts throughout the Tampa Bay area are working to make in-person voting as safe as possible for those worried about their votes being tossed, however.
The supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County is taking steps to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Every poll worker will be required to wear a mask, and they will also have masks to give to voters who request them. Everything will be sanitized between uses, and a one-time-use stylus will be given to each voter. All areas will be socially distanced including the lines. Plexiglass shields will also separate poll workers and voters, and hand sanitizer will be readily available at every location, according to Bay News 9.
It’s important for voters to understand the limitations of the systems being put in place during this election. If you want to ensure that your vote is counted, show up and vote in person.
There are early voting locations that allow voters to avoid long lines and mitigate the risk of the Election Day crowds. If you do vote by mail, however, you can increase the likelihood of your vote counting by ensuring that you have properly filled out your ballot, your signature matches the one on your license, your ballot is properly enclosed in the security envelope and you take it directly to a drop box instead of mailing it back or having someone else take it.