2020 election: Everything you need to know about mail-in and absentee ballots

Despite efforts by president to suggest otherwise, elections officials claim mail-in voting not prone to increased voter fraud

Graig Graziosi
Thursday 20 August 2020 00:13 BST
Donald Trump says mail-in ballots will lead to 'greatest election disaster in history'

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The 2020 US election is only three months away, and the coronavirus has shown no signs that it will slow by the time Americans go to the polls on 3 November. State leaders are scrambling to devise Election Day plans that will allow their constituents to vote without putting millions of people at risk of contracting the virus.

The president has frequently lashed out at the idea that the general election will be conducted largely through mail-in voting, and has claimed that such an election would lead to massive voter fraud, allow for foreign interference, and is indicative of a Democratic plot to steal the election.

To further complicate matters, reports of efforts within the United States Postal Service to intentionally slow its service and undermine its ability to handle an influx of mail-in ballots before the election have promoted lawsuits in more than 20 states and fierce push-back by Democratic lawmakers.

Are Mr Trump’s worries founded in evidence? Is his real concern voter fraud? And what is happening to the Postal Service?

What does Mr Trump say about mail-in voting?

The president has been antagonistic towards mail-in voting for months, claiming back in April that he opposed a Democratic-written version of the coronavirus relief CARES Act because it included legislation that would expand mail-in voting. Mr Trump called the measures “crazy” and suggested their implementation would mean Republicans would no longer be able to win elections.

“The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Mr Trump said. “They had things in there about election days and what you do and all sorts of clawbacks. They had things that were just totally crazy and had nothing to do with workers that lost their jobs and companies that we have to save.”

The president has warned that mail-in voting could lead to the “greatest election disaster in history” and has attacked states like California and Nevada for embracing the practice.

Mr Trump claimed he planned to sue the state of Nevada over a “late night coup” in which lawmakers passed legislation allowing the state to send mail-in ballots to all registered Nevada voters.

In an interview with Axios, Mr Trump warned that mail-in voting could mean the presidential election won’t be decided by the end of the election day, and that it could take “weeks” to determine who won. He claimed “lots of things can happen” if the election isn’t decided by the end of election night.

“The 2020 Election will be totally rigged if Mail-In Voting is allowed to take place, & everyone knows it,” he tweeted in July.

The president even suggested that he would issue an executive order to try to stop mail-in voting, a move that would be counter to decades of Republican efforts to maintain states’ rights to maintain their own election methods.

Mr Trump – as well as members of his family and staff – have voted by mail themselves through the use of absentee ballots.

The president and other Republican leaders have explained this away by claiming that their ballots were cast as absentee ballots and were not through mail-in voting. However, the claim is a distinction without a difference, as mail-in voting and absentee ballots are effectively the same thing.

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” the president tweeted.

Mail-in voting versus absentee ballots

The differences in absentee voting and mail-in voting are minor and primarily procedural. Both require ballots to be sent by mail, require the postal service to sort and handle the ballots, and both are prone to the same potential problems.

Absentee voting is when a voter requests a ballot to be sent to them prior to the election, which allows them to make their selections and mail the ballot back to their local elections office. The practice was established during the US Civil War to allow soldiers to cast votes while they were away on military campaigns. Today, absentee voting is used by US military members, Americans working overseas, by those with illnesses or other conditions that prevent them from voting in person, or simply by those who would rather mail in a ballot than stand in line at voting booths.

Mail-in voting is essentially the same thing, with one notable difference; rather than voters having to request a ballot, the ballots are sent to all eligible voters in the states. Several states adopted this method during the primaries over fears that large turnouts for election days would further spread the coronavirus. If the primary model is a sign of what to expect from states come November, most states will allow residents to vote by mail or vote in person.

There are five states which have mandatory mail-in voting; Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

Republican leaders have recently attempted to draw a line between the two systems, in part to keep in lockstep with the president’s messaging, but also over fears that turnout among their supporters will be low due to the virus and their fears – stoked by the president – that mailing in their ballots will make them susceptible to fraud.

“It is a problem,” a Republican strategist speaking with The Washington Post said. “The president has oversimplified the issue to criticise the method of voting, rather than the way it’s done. The details matter.”

It may have been pressure from concerned Republicans that prompted a strange backtrack by the president on the subject of mail-in voting on Tuesday. In a tweet, the president said it was ok to vote by mail or cast an absentee vote – if they are voting in Florida.

“Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail! #MAGA”

Trump’s support in Florida includes many older Americans who are especially susceptible to the coronavirus.

Is mail-in voting more susceptible to fraud?

The crux of the president’s arguments against mail-in voting are that ballots will be susceptible to fraud, with further subtext suggesting Mr Trump fears Democrats will tamper with ballots or counting to ensure he is not re-elected.

The Bipartisan Policy Center spoke to elections officials in three states to determine whether voter fraud was significantly more likely under a mail-in voting system.

Colorado’s Elections Director Judd Choate pushed back on the claim that voter fraud was more likely, and suggested that the practice overall may help reduce voter fraud.

“People who vote in person sometimes don’t update their addresses, even when they have moved. But because it’s an in person voting model, the state or county doesn’t go to great extremes to keep [address] lists clean,” Mr Choate said.

Under Colorado’s all-mail system, elections offices have to constantly update addresses of voters to ensure that voters get the correct ballots. In traditional in-person voting systems, voters have to update their addresses with local elections offices themselves. This allows for voters to potentially vote in the wrong locations – and influence elections despite not living in the voting precinct – for years.

“In that way, vote-by-mail actually reduces fraud instead of promoting it,” Mr Choate said.

Lori Augino Washington State‘s Director of Elections, said that in her state – which has been conducting all-mail voting since 2011 – said that the state has not seen a rampant surge in voter fraud as a result of their mandatory mail-in voting rules.

“Of the nearly 3.2 million ballots cast [in Washington in 2018], only 0.004% of the total ballots cast may have been fraudulent,” Ms Augino said.

The number of ballots cast in that election which may have been fraudulent is 142.

Are there problems with mail-in voting?

According to Washington State’s Vote-By-Mail factsheet, one of the downsides to the practice is that is requires “staff expertise” to carry out without problems.

With the election only three months away, it is unlikely that states that have never conducted vote-by-mail will have staff with expertise in handling a wholly vote-by-mail election.

Though several cities that switched to mail-in voting during the primaries carried out their elections with minimal issues, New York City is a notable example of the opposite. After cancelling its primary, New York City was forced by the courts to reinstate the election. The city’s primary was held six weeks ago, and the city mailed out ballots to thousands of residents in hopes of mitigating the risk posed by the coronavirus.

Mr Trump jumped on the opportunity to use New York City as an example of the dire fate of the US should mail-in voting be adopted.

“If you look at the New York congressional race, which is a disaster. They’re six weeks into it now. They have no clue what’s going on,” Mr Trump said. “And I mean, I think I can say right here, and now I think you have to rerun that race, because it’s a mess. Nobody knows what’s happening with the ballots and the lost ballots and the fraudulent ballots, I guess.”

While New York City did have election troubles, it did not report widespread instances of voter fraud, which is Mr Trump’s primary stated concern with mail-in voting.

The USPS and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy

Louis DeJoy is Mr Trump’s newly appointed postmaster general; essentially, he’s the boss of the USPS. Prior to his appointment, Mr DeJoy was a North Carolina businessman with a background in logistics. Mr Dejoy is a major donor to the Republican party, and has come under fire for making changes at the USPS that his critics allege are meant to intentionally sabotage the service’s ability to function efficiently ahead of the election.

In July, a month after his appointment, Mr DeJoy gave instructions to employees to leave mail sitting at distribution centres if it delayed mail carriers from heading to their routes. Mr DeJoy claimed the move was a cost cutting measure, but postal employees speaking anonymously to The Washington Post claimed it went against longstanding protocol to ensure any mail that reached the distribution centre was delivered, even if it meant carriers making multiple day trips.

A month later, Mr DeJoy shook up the USPS’s internal organisation, displacing 23 postal executives, including two top officials overseeing daily operations.

He came under fire last week when trucks were spotted removing blue USPS mailboxes from city streets in several cities, and for removing sorting equipment from USPS distribution centres.

Congressman Gerald Connolly, a Democrat, called Mr DeJoy’s actions “deliberate sabotage to disrupt mail service on the eve of the election – an election that hinges on mail-in ballots”.

Mr DeJoy has since backed down on his changes after intense pushback from Democrats and dozens of states threatening to sue. He is set to testify before a Senate committee on Friday and the House Oversight Committee next week.

If not fraud, then why is Mr Trump against mail-in voting?

Mr Trump likely believes that making it easier for Americans to vote will hurt his election prospects, and said as much when he discussed why he opposed the Democrat-written version of the CARES Act. He doubled down on a month later on his theory.


Then he tripled down when he suggested Nevada’s new legislation made it “impossible for Republicans to win the state.”

Republican political strategy for decades has included efforts to restrict voting through the implementation of voter ID laws and the purging of registered voters from state voter-rolls if they have not participated in an election for a certain number of years.

In May, The New York Times reported on a $20m Republican plan to use volunteers as “election monitors” to challenge ballots and voters that they deem suspicious and to fight court battles with voter rights groups supporting legislation to make voting easier.

In recent years, the state of Georgia has closed more than 200 polling places and has restricted early voting. In addition, the state has purged almost 10 per cent of its voting population from its voter rolls.

Republicans are currently attempting to beat mail-in voting in the courts in hopes that conservative judges will side with them in their efforts to stop Democrat-led efforts to broaden election access.

“We have many lawsuits going all over,” Mr Trump told a Politico reporter. “And if we don’t win those lawsuits, I think -- I think it puts the election at risk.”

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