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Trump says mail voting will ‘rig the election’. Experts say Americans will die without it in November

Yesterday US President Donald Trump said he was so concerned about “Universal Mail-In Voting” that he suggested delaying the November election.

“It will be a great embarrassment to the USA,” Trump said.

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It’s not the first time he’s attacked mail voting. He told Fox News recently that it would “rig the election” and that he might not accept the result of the election because of it.

But with record daily cases and a second wave apparently yet to reach its peak, the reality is setting in that COVID-19 won’t go away before November. Experts say without mail voting, Americans will be putting their lives at risk to cast a ballot.

So is there any truth to the claims that mail voting will “rig the election”? And is America ready to vote in the middle of a pandemic?

The answer differs state to state

We’ll get back to those rigging claims, but let’s start with the US’s pandemic preparedness.

America’s electoral system is decentralised by design, with each state responsible for its own rules.

On the one hand, it makes it hard to hack or change the results of a presidential election when there are 50 different electoral systems administered in 50 different states.

On the other, it makes it hard to introduce catch-all measures to change those systems quickly.

A report prepared by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice says only five states meet every condition it says are necessary to hold an election during a pandemic.

Voting stations are set up in the South Wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center
The 2020 election will bring big changes to the way America votes.(AP: Timothy D. Easley)

And while some states are moving to change that, the push hasn’t been universally successful.

In Texas, the state Supreme Court ruled a lack of immunity from COVID-19 wasn’t a valid excuse to be able to vote by mail.

The Federal Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin’s request to extend a mail-in ballot deadline back in April.

And six states have signalled they won’t allow coronavirus concerns to stand as a valid reason to be granted a mail-in ballot at all.

Change won’t be easy. Or cheap

The Brennan Center report lays out five broad areas it says are “critical” to “ensure the election works”:

  • Polling place modification and preparation
  • Expanded early voting
  • A universal vote-by-mail option
  • Voter registration modification and preparation
  • Voter education and manipulation prevention

The report found that “to ensure all elections between now and November are free, fair, safe, and secure”, at least $US4 billion ($5.6 billion) would be needed from Congress.

So far, Congress has only approved $US450 million. House Democrats rolled more election funding into a new coronavirus stimulus bill, but we’re waiting to see if that package will pass Congress (and avoid a potential veto on the President’s desk).

An election worker cleans a polling booth with an American flag on it
Experts say safe in-person voting remains vital in 2020.(Reuters: Paul Ratje)

Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy David Levine says the last issue on that list — voter education — is vitally important.

“One of the things about the coronavirus, wherever you are in the world, is that you’ve seen numerous instances where people are uncertain and they want answers from trusted sources,” Levine said.

“In many places, including the United States, those trusted sources have at times been uncertain of what exactly the best response is. Those opportunities, where someone’s looking for information and we don’t know the answer, can become perfect opportunities for bad actors to fill that void.”

Trump says mail-in voting will lead to fraud. The research says otherwise

In the tweet that got him fact-checked by Twitter for the first time, Trump claimed: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.

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The fact check didn’t deter Trump, who is still making claims about mail voting more than two months later.

An investigation of American elections from 2000-2012 found only 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud, a figure it described as “infinitesimal”.

In Oregon — a state where almost all voting is done by mail — there have only been a dozen cases from more than 100 million ballots sent out since 2000, according to the National Vote at Home Coalition.

And an analysis by Wendy R Weiser and Harold Ekeh at The Brennan Center for Justice puts it like this:

Levine agrees.

“In-person voting, the likelihood of fraud is remote, according to the research,” he said.

“Absentee ballot fraud is a hair above remote.”

Trump says mail-in voting will end the Republican Party. Again, the research says otherwise

There are two pieces of conventional wisdom that exist in US politics when it comes to mail-in voting:

  • Mail-in voting would significantly increase voter turnout by making it easier for people to vote
  • That would be bad for Republicans, because those who find it tough to vote in person are more likely to vote for Democrats

It’s another idea Trump has relied on when explaining why he’s so against the expansion of mail-in voting.

“They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said on an appearance on Fox and Friends.

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But research from the Democracy and Polarization Lab at Stanford University found “universal vote-by-mail does not affect either party’s share of turnout or either party’s vote share”.

Florida, one of the states most key to Trump’s re-election, sends mail-in ballots to any voter that requests one.

Long-time Republican strategist in Florida Mac Stipanovich told NPR mail-in ballots had been a “key tool” for the party.

Republican state officials in some of the states that helped send Trump to the White House in 2016 — Ohio, Iowa and West Virginia — are taking steps to make mail-in voting easier because of the coronavirus.

In Utah, the state’s elections director, Justin Lee, says mail-in voting hasn’t hurt Republicans at all.

“People are turning out, 90 per cent are using it in a very red state. I don’t see any problems for us,” Lee told the Associated Press.

What are the chances of things changing by November? What happens if they don’t?

Election day is fast approaching, and so are the opportunities for states to make changes to their electoral systems in time.

Georgia’s primaries in June was an example of one of the worst-case scenarios— voting lines so long people stood in them for hours (with little social distancing), absentee ballots that were never delivered and results that were delayed by more than a week.

Wisconsin didn’t fare much better.

“The primaries were definitely a test run in both directions,” said Darrell West, the vice-president and director for governance studies at the Brookings Institute.

“Because of what happened, a number of states moved [towards mail-in ballots] and it was very popular. There were a number of places that, once they made that option available, 60, 70, 80 per cent of the voters actually chose that option.

Voters line up outside polling boohts in Georgia
Georgia’s primaries were delayed because of coronavirus but still faced huge problems.(Reuters: Dustin Chambers)

West says there’s still time to change processes, but a critical deadline is fast approaching. In about six weeks, some states will begin early mail-in voting, meaning there won’t be time to reprint ballots or make major staffing changes past mid-September.

Though mail-in voting may well become more popular before then, the results of that big change could disappoint the public in a key way.

We could be waiting ‘days’ for a result

Unless the election is a landslide, the process of counting mail-in ballots leaves every chance we’ll be waiting “a few days” to find out who won, West said.

US media isn’t preparing for a standard election night, but an ‘Election Week’.

And that’s bad news — not because of the delay itself, but because of how it’ll be spun.

“They’re going to worry, ‘Are the Russians playing with the results?’ ‘Is Trump playing with the results?’ ‘Are Democrats playing with the results?’

“It will create scepticism about the whole process.”

In other words, you can expect the 2020 election to get messy, regardless of whether states are prepared or not.

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