Now that Bernie Sanders has officially ended his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, switching exclusively to a vote-by-mail format in the remaining primaries is looking more and more like a reality.
Initial concerns about in-person voting were driven by fears of an unnecesary risk of exposure during the COVID-19 pandemic. With both primaries all but decided and the controversies surrounding yesterday's in-person Wisconsin primary, those calls are all but certain to grow.
“In order to ensure the voices of voters are heard, the DNC is urging the remaining primary states to use a variety of other critical mechanisms that will make voting easier and safer for voters and election officials alike,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said last month. “The simplest tool is vote by mail, which is already in use in a number of states and should be made available to all registered voters.”
Ignoring the advice of medical experts and others, Wisconsin went ahead with its primary on Tuesday. Masked voters stood six feet apart while waiting to cast their votes, enduring long lines and inclement weather. Democratic Governor Tony Evers had tried to force the Republican-controlled state legislature to ensure a mail-in ballot was provided to every registered voter, and then to delay the primary until a later, safer date. Ignoring his calls, they instead went to court. Using conservative Republican majorities on both the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts, the Wisconsin GOP was able to quash efforts to both delay the primary and switch to vote-by-mail (VBM). The U.S. Supreme Court did leave in place a ban on counties reporting results until April 13.
Currently 15 states and one U.S. territory have either delayed their primaries or switched to vote-by-mail (VBM) with extended deadlines. Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming have all switched to exclusive VBM. Puerto Rico has indefinitely postponed its primary, while the remaining 11 states have postponed their primaries to later dates.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Election Data Science Lab at MIT showed that the number of people voting in person has dropped from over 90 person in 1992 to roughly 60 percent in 2016. The remaining 40 person voted either early in person or via a mail-in ballot. The increasing popularity of VBM is easy to understand. Gone is the headache of taking time off from your schedule to stand for hours in long lines at your local precinct. Voters can instead make their choices at a time and place of their own choosing. It stands to reason that VBM is sure to be even more popular and medically preferable during the pandemic.
Even though President Trump voted by mail in 2018, he slammed the method in a recent press conference, describing it wrongly as fraudulent.
There are indeed some problems with VBM (though Trump's reticence stems from a desire to suppress the vote). First, experts agree that while proven cases of voter fraud remain relatively rare in the U.S., VBM is more susceptible to mischief than voting in person. A 2005 election integrity commission led by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of State James A. Baker III determined it was the leading possible source of voter fraud in their final report. Additionally, switching to VBM on such short notice is an administrative and legal nightmare.
Regardless of the difficulties, though, Perez understands the importance of the election process and plans to fight to protect it.
“The DNC will continue to monitor the situation and work with state parties around their delegate selection plans, specifically allowing flexibility around how states elect their delegates to the national convention once those delegates are allocated based on their primary or caucus results,” he said in a prior statement. “The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, and we must do everything we can to protect and expand that right instead of bringing our democratic process to a halt.”