The realities of voting by mail in elections

June 16, 2020

Absentee voting, an election practice that has been around since the Civil War days, has now become – unfortunately – a weaponized political issue as we head into the August primary and November general elections.

Republicans, led by President Trump, are attempting to paint the practice of absentee ballot voting, often called voting by mail, as a threat to the sanctity of elections, claiming that voting by mail allows more fraudulent casting of ballots. Minions from the right either are not aware, or more likely they are less inclined to tell you, of the number of studies showing there are few documented cases of fraud when it comes to absentee ballots or the election process in total.

It would appear that this opposition from the GOP stems from a long-held concern that making the voting process easier to access will result in more Democrats participating in the process, especially in communities of color, further challenging the Republican majority in some communities and more specifically the chance of the incumbent president winning another four-year term come this fall.

So let's take a look at the history of absentee ballots and voting by mail.

Both sides in the Civil War used absentee ballots, which were passed out to battlefield units. A number of states following the war began passing laws to facilitate absentee voting, although the number of votes cast in this manner after the war was minimal. Congress got into the act during World War II with legislation in 1942 and 1944, so members of the military stationed outside the borders of our country have been voting this way for decades.

The big push to make it easier to vote with absentee ballots by mail came in the 1980s, with California the first state to allow voters to freely request absentee ballots, and by 2018, 27 states allowed what we now call “no reason” absentee ballots.

Michigan voters, with their approval of voting procedural changes as part of a ballot issue in 2018, finally joined the club and we all can now enjoy “no reason” absentee ballot voting.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has helped raise public interest in voting by mail even more, out of concern that crowds physically gathering at polling places will add to what is an expected second wave of infections that medical experts predict for this fall.

To both further implement the 2018 voter-approved electoral changes, as well as safeguarding the public from potential increased virus infection, local clerks and the Michigan Secretary of State are diligently working to distribute applications for absentee ballots. Election officials are also allowing anyone to join a permanent list of those who would prefer to vote by mail in the future and automatically receive a ballot application for any scheduled election.

So when you hear the latest conspiracy theory about voting by mail, keep the following in mind.

At best, the records from Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data + Science Lab show about a 10 percent increase in voter participation with voting by mail, which is a good thing if you support citizen access to the electoral process. Case studies show a moderate increased turnout in mid-term and presidential elections. Increased turnout is more pronounced in primary elections, along with local elections and special elections. Once again, a good thing.

The Birmingham/Bloomfield area already has a strong track record of turning out to vote. In November of 2018, between 70 and nearly 72 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In November of 2016, a presidential election year, over 76 percent of registered voters cast ballots from this area of the county. It's an impressive turnout but basically shows that 24-30 percent of those registered to vote don't bother for one reason or another.  

As to the concerns that more Democrats will turn out and upset the GOP stranglehold in some states – like Michigan – case history across the country shows that not to be true. Participation increases with less restricted absentee ballot voting was about equal for both parties.

So our hats are off to the 83 county clerks, 280 city clerks and 1,240 township clerks who are working to make the election process more accessible to voters in this state.

Michigan – despite its many failings on the election front thanks to political hacks in the legislature who forced this issue to the ballot in 2018 – had at one time been a leader on some voting issues, such as voter registration through the department of motor vehicles, 20 years ahead of the 1994 federal mandate for all states to do the same.

We wish election officials well in their quest to bring more of the state's citizenry into the voting process, the basic underpinning of our representative democracy.
 

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