Shortcuts / 27 August 2020

Mail-in Voting in the US Election

The 2020 US presidential election is happening in November, but with the country still in the grip of COVID-19, there’s a lot of talk about how the vote will be carried out, and more specifically, the role of mail-in voting. In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take a look at how US elections work, what mail-in voting is, and the issues surrounding it.

Who can vote in the US?

In order to be eligible to vote you have to be over 18 years old, a US citizen, and in some states, you can’t have a felony conviction. You also have to be registered to vote. It’s a very different dynamic to how elections work in Australia, and that of course is driven by the fact that voting isn’t compulsory in the US. The last presidential election in 2016 saw a voter turnout of about 55% of Americans. A big study after that election found that it’s apathy that the leading cause of why people don’t vote, and then there’s what’s known as voter suppression. That’s when efforts are made to prevent eligible voters from exercising their right to vote.

How do presidential elections work in the US?

Americans vote for their president every four years. The two main American political parties – the Republicans and Democrats – each nominate a presidential candidate after selecting him or her through primaries that are held in each US state between January and June in an election year. This year, the competition is between incumbent US President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival and President Obama’s former VP, Joe Biden. Candidates from minor parties and independent candidates can also run, but they tend to struggle to gain traction or get the funding required to run a national campaign. And when it comes to voters, traditionally, those who wish to vote go to the polls in person on Election Day. But this year, COVID-19 restrictions mean more Americans will look to submit their votes early by mail.

How can you vote in the US?

There’s a couple of ways you can cast a vote in the US, starting with ballot papers like we have here in Australia, but the US also has voting machines. For almost 17 years, states and counties around the US have conducted elections on machines that have been repeatedly shown to be vulnerable to hacking, errors and breakdowns. And importantly in tight races, they leave behind no proof that the votes counted actually match the votes that were cast.

More recently though, several states have adopted measures that allow voters to submit their vote before election day by mail, something we are familiar with here in Australia. But we can’t compare Australia’s federal elections to the US poll. To start with, we have one body (the Australian Electoral Commission) with one set of rules. In the US, the poll is conducted by state election authorities, which have differing approaches to voting, including how mail-in voting works.

There are 5 states where mail-in voting is what they call universal. What they do is send out ballot papers to all registered voters whether they’ve asked for it or not. Then there’s a group of states where you have to apply for a mail-in ballot and give a reason why you can’t get to a polling booth on the day. And there’s another group where you get a mail-in ballot by applying but you don’t have to give a reason.

How many Americans are mail-in voting?

The number of Americans voting by mail has increased in recent years, with nearly one in four voters casting their ballots for president that way in 2016. This year, thanks to Covid, the number of mail in votes is expected to double, and that’s being helped by states, particularly Democratic held states, opening up access to mail-in voting.

What are President Donald Trump’s concerns about mail-in voting?

Trump says “mail-in voting is going to be catastrophic, it’s going to make our country the laughing stock of the world.” He claims it will be linked to widespread fraud, which experts reject. There have been cases of postal vote fraud in state and council elections. But a Washington Post review of the 2016 election found one proven case of postal voting fraud. And of course fraud and election tampering is a hot topic after the 2016 election where there was evidence that Russia got involved to favour Trump’s election.

What do others say?

Plenty of experts have rejected Trumps claim that ail-in voting will lead to voter fraud. Critics say Trump’s real issue is the theory that more mail-in voting will favour Democratic challenger Joe Biden. The jury’s out on that, although there are polls that suggest Republicans and Trump supporters feel more comfortable about voting in person on election day where as Democrats and Biden supporters are more COVID wary and will take up the expanded mail-in voter option.

How is US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy involved?

The increased volume of mail expected by an influx of Americans mail-in voting has seen the US Postal Service – which is already debt-ridden and under pressure – flag that it’s going to have problems processing that many votes. The Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy is a major Trump donor and he has received a lot of flack lately from Democrats. He was recently appointed to the role by Trump, and he’s sought to put in place a range of cost cutting measures to ‘right-size’ the Postal Service. Government postal services all over the world are going through something like that at the moment, including Australia Post, given the decrease in letters going through the system thanks to digital communications systems. But those cost cutting measures have led to postal delays could have massive ramifications for the election.

What are they?

If people aren’t able to both receive ballot papers, and then send them back quickly and easily, millions of Americans could be denied a vote. Which is a scenario the US Postal Service has flagged to state election authorities. The latest round of cost cutting has been put on ice following the outrage vented at the service. But there remains real concerns with more states offering mail in voting. And some commentators are worried the concerns surrounding mail-in voting could see the election result be disputed – which Trump has indicated he may do.

What’s been happening in the courts?

With so much at stake, the debate over mail-in voting has gotten messy, and experts’ prediction that much of the debate will end up in the courts has come to pass. There have been a record number of lawsuits launched over mail-in voting, and the Trump campaign is behind some of those lawsuits seeking to prevent the rollout of mail-in voting to more people.

Squiz Recommends:

FiveThirtyEight article on 2020 US election mail-in voting trends

Vox article on Facebook’s new voter information centre

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