WASHINGTON — A big and unexpected win for Democrats in Wisconsin this week has scrambled the debate over expanding vote-by-mail initiatives and extending them into the November election.
President Trump has said that expanding mail-in voting would help Democrats. But in Wisconsin, Republicans successfully fought efforts to expand it and yet their candidate in a key contest lost.
Democrats involved in the fight over voting rules still expect Trump to oppose expanding mail-in voting, as well as early voting, because he thinks they will help his opponents.
Long waits to vote in Wisconsin last week were concentrated in big (and largely Democratic) cities like Milwaukee, which had only five polling places open for over 200,000 voters, instead of the 180 that were planned, due to a shortage of poll workers.
Democratic leaders called the debacle an intentional attempt by Republicans to advantage their own candidates and disadvantage Democratic ones. Republican candidates overwhelmingly draw support from voters in more rural areas, while Democratic supporters tend to live in urban centers and nearby suburbs.
Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, called the Wisconsin election “voter suppressions on steroids” in a conference call on Monday morning, hours before the election results came in. Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler, on that same call, decried “a Republican strategy to disenfranchise voters by preventing safe voting options based on the cynical calculation that Republicans might be more likely to vote in a pandemic.”
Perez and Wikler both also said that expanding vote-by-mail — and early voting — shouldn’t be a partisan issue. “This shouldn’t be about right versus left,” Perez said. “Coronavirus kills Democrats and Republicans and independents alike,” Wikler said.
But that point was at odds with his claim that Republicans were trying to give themselves an advantage by forcing voters to cast ballots in person.
When results were released Monday night, the Democrats’ candidate for an open seat on the state Supreme Court defeated an incumbent who had been endorsed and repeatedly promoted by Trump. Wisconsin is one of 22 states in the country where judges are elected by popular vote, rather than appointed.
To Democratic elections lawyer Marc Elias, however, the Milwaukee example still served as a warning sign for the fall elections, when the number of voters who participate increases exponentially and the potential for longer lines and long waits that discourage participation will be even greater.
Elias is currently involved in litigation on behalf of the Democratic Party in 14 states regarding election rules, and he said in an interview that he thinks Trump opposes expanded voting by mail because his campaign has concluded they can’t win in the fall if voter turnout is near or above usual levels, averaging around 54 to 58 percent of eligible voters.
“So their goal is to simply make it harder for everyone to vote and therefore hopefully distort the outcome. They’re on to something in this regard: There is an urbanity difference in the impact of these voting issues,” Elias told Yahoo News. “More densely populated areas are more affected by COVID and are more likely to experience lines, and are more likely to encounter other voting administrative challenges due to volume, than more rural areas. So if they’re able to create chokepoints, the odds are they will create fewer chokepoints in rural areas and more chokepoints in urban areas.”
“It is asymmetrical. Everyone wants vote by mail but it becomes an absolute urgent necessity in Milwaukee. It’s important but it doesn’t have the same dramatic affect in a more rural area,” he said.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh, when asked about Elias’s comments, did not address the criticism but echoed what Trump has previously said: that voting by mail increases the chances of cheating. Trump has called mail-in voting “corrupt” and said that expanding it would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
However, “the consensus from credible research and investigation is that the rate of illegal voting is extremely rare, and the incidence of certain types of fraud — such as impersonating another voter — is virtually nonexistent,” the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan advocacy group at New York University, found in a 2017 report.
Myrna Perez, director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center, wrote in a separate 2017 report that “vote-by-mail raises election integrity issues because of concerns that ballots can be filled out improperly or manipulated for ballot stuffing.” Perez also cited research showing that mail-in ballots were occasionally lost in the mail, and were slightly more likely to be rejected by elections officials for irregularities.
But Perez also pointed to solutions for these problems. States that run their elections entirely by mail already have sophisticated bar-code tracking systems to ensure that ballots are not lost or misplaced. And those states also have professionalized training for elections officials on how to check signatures on the ballot against signatures on record. Signature match is a verification tool intended to prevent forgeries or voter impersonation, but voting rights advocates worry it could be used to reject valid ballots.
In 2018, one of the most significant election fraud scandal in recent history took place: a Republican candidate for Congress in North Carolina financed an operation to illegally collect absentee ballots and filled them in on his behalf. The operative responsible was indicted and a new election was ordered.
Which party benefits from mail-in voting is far from clear, especially in a situation like the current pandemic. Many voters who might usually insist on voting in person are certain to prefer voting by mail if their health is threatened. Studies have shown small advantages to either party in different states.
Democrats who are pushing for vote-by-mail expansion also insist that in-person voting should be retained, and early voting expanded, because they are concerned that many of their voters will not cast ballots by mail.
One political scientist in North Carolina found in a study that “overwhelmingly, absentee by mail ballots are utilized by white voters, who typically are 70 percent of registered voters in the past four presidential election cycles.”
There are 28 states that allow any voter to cast a ballot by mail, and five states — Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii — conduct their elections entirely by mail. The other 17 states require voters to have a valid reason to vote absentee.
In a number of key swing states for the fall election that will help decide who is elected the next president, it is Republican state leaders who are pushing for more mail-in voting. In Iowa, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate moved back the state’s primary to June and is mailing every registered voter an absentee ballot. He is considering going to an all-mail election in the fall.
In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said that the state would allow anyone who wanted to vote by mail in the fall to do so, counting the coronavirus outbreak as a legitimate disability. In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, with the support of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, has moved the April 28 primary to an all-mail election, with limited in-person voting available to voters with disabilities who need assistance, and to those without an address. LaRose has said that if Ohio needs to be able to conduct the fall election the same way, they will be able to do so, and has rebutted the notion that mail-in voting is not secure or that it gives either party an advantage.
And in addition, the Republican National Committee has encouraged GOP voters in Pennsylvania, a key swing state, to vote by mail, saying it is “an easy, convenient and secure way to cast your ballot.” In the mailer sent only to Republican voters, the word “secure” was highlighted in bold.
The mailer also instructed Republican voters to cast ballots by mail “to avoid lines and protect yourself from large crowds on Election Day.”
Yet RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has said that the idea to send mail-in ballots to every eligible voter would “undermine democracy.”
Republican objections, then, are really not about letting their own voters do so by mail. They are about letting all voters do so. They claim that’s because sending ballots to every eligible voter would increase the chances of ballots being sent to addresses where the person has moved or died.
“There is a very obvious difference between requesting an absentee ballot when you will be unable to vote in person versus automatically mailing every registered voter a ballot,” Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump reelection campaign, told Yahoo News. “Sending everyone a ballot opens up wide possibilities for ballots to be intercepted, for ballots to be stolen from mailboxes, or for vote harvesting to occur.”
Perez of the Brennan Center wrote in her 2017 report that there are strong disincentives to the average individual to commit election fraud, apart from the obvious fact that any one vote is unlikely to affect the outcome of an election in which hundreds or thousands of citizens participate.
“Election fraud with respect to both registration and voting is ... a federal crime that can result in fines of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison,” Perez wrote.
“But politicians and party officials often have their very livelihoods — or quest for power — at stake in elections, boosting their incentives for misconduct. It is not surprising that many instances of election fraud, both historically and in the present day, involve the actions of insiders,” she added.
Perez outlined a number of measures that elections officials can take to prevent such abuses by those already in power, from separating tasks among elections officials to avoid concentrated power, to scrupulous record-keeping and audits or reviews, to tip lines and proper investigations, and other measures.
“We do not have to choose between election integrity and election access,” Perez concluded. “Indeed, free and fair access is necessary for an election to have integrity.”
The Brennan Center has provided an itemized list of how much it would cost to equip states with the technology and equipment needed to safely and securely implement a majority vote-by-mail election, along with expanded in person voting. Their estimate was $2 billion. Congress has so far allocated $400 million for states to prepare for the fall election.
Murtaugh, the spokesman for the president’s reelection, argued that Trump’s comment that Republicans will lose elections where vote-by-mail was a reference to fraud, not an admission of political weakness.
“Democrat proposals would legalize voting methods that would allow widespread fraud,” Murtaugh told Yahoo News. “Make no mistake, if everyone who is allowed has the opportunity to vote once, then Republicans win.”
But Trump’s insistence that vote-by-mail would invite fraud — despite the clear evidence of preventative measures that are available and states that have implemented them effectively — leaves the president in an awkward position.
Trump is arguing that taking measures to protect regular Americans, and to ensuring the safest election possible, is not worth the effort and money needed.
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