This article is the first in a special series covering the US elections this November, which will be featured on DEBAT. It looks at the dynamics of mail-in voting and how it will not just change Election Day, but quite possibly the future of American politics. DEBAT will publish an article on Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Election Day.

Tens of millions of Americans will vote by mail this year. Many have already sent in their ballots, either waiting to be counted on Election Day or already added to an undisclosed tally. Many have requested one, and quite possibly are filling them in right now. Some may not receive a mail-in ballot at all. How this work depends entirely on what state one lives in.

America’s highly decentralized federal system means that the power to determine how elections are conducted; including national ones; entirely falls to the regional government – the state. This has resulted in a patchwork system of voting that may seem all too confusing and hard to grasp for outsiders. With mail-in voting now being introduced as a new protagonist to this already bewildering story of a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic, we hope to explain how this election will look like from our side of the Atlantic.

Not a regular election

In a normal presidential election, most Americans would show up at their local polling station; on the first Tuesday of November in a leap year; to cast their ballot for who they wish to see as the next President of the United States. For this year, it’s November 3rd. Different states stop voting at different times, as polls generally close first in the East Coast and last in the Pacific states.

Votes are then counted into a running total, where news outlets can ultimately decide to “call” a state when they believe one candidate has an unbeatable lead over the other. This is a prediction, not a final result. Elections are usually decisive on the same day votes are cast, meaning that whoever wins the presidency tend to become clear by the end of the night as that we saw in 2016 when Hillary Clinton delivered her concession speech on the morning after Election Day.

US Presidents are not decided by the popular vote, but rather by winning the most votes in most states. This system is called the Electoral College, where the winner of each state carries a predetermined number of electoral votes equating to how many seats it has in the Congress; for example, California has 53 House Representatives & 2 Senators = 55 electoral votes; all being roughly proportional to its population. A candidate wins the electoral votes of a state when they win a decisive majority of votes within that state. To win the election, they would need to win at least 270 out of the 538 electoral votes one can get.

Conceived by the Founding Fathers as a system to account for geographical divisions in the United States, the Electoral College, however, in recent years has come under scrutiny, especially from Democrats, who accuse it to be an unequal method to elect a president. Voting power for rural Americans; who are mainly Republicans; tend to be higher than that of urban Americans; mainly Democrats, as sparsely-populated Wisconsin has the same number of electoral votes deriving from the Senate as that of densely-packed New York. The role of faithless electors; where an Electoral College member does not vote for the candidate to which they had pledged to vote; is also criticized, all summing up an argument that the College is outdated as it does not adhere to the democratic standard of “one person, one vote.”

This entire process brings a sense of spectacle to the American presidential election unseen anywhere else in the world. It’s reality TV, but with extra steps.

Mail-in voting

This election, however, is shaping up to look very different from any previous ones. The last presidential election to be held during a pandemic was in 1920; right after the Spanish Flu; so there’s virtually no contemporary precedent to look towards. The essentialities of an election remain; the Electoral College is still here and millions of Americans will cast their ballot at their local polling station in November, but what makes this election so different is that we may see much more people voting and find out who won much later than usual; possibly days, if not weeks after Election Day.

Look to nowhere other than mail-in voting as the reason for this.

More Americans than ever before can now vote by mail as states expand their ability to accommodate for an election held under a pandemic. Previously, it was common for states to restrict voting by mail to certain people – those over the age of 65, people who are ill, and Americans living abroad or outside of their state. However, voting by mail is now permitted in most states, and has become an integral voting component for American elections in recent years. Nearly one-quarter of votes were cast by post in the 2016 presidential elections, and an estimated 80 million postal ballots will be cast this election. Fears of possible virus transmission from large gatherings in polling stations have driven many states to adjust their policies to offer voters this safe alternative to voting in person.

Another patchwork system

How elections are conducted in one’s state is (mostly) up to the local government to decide, so it’s no surprise that this is the same for mail-in voting. At least three-quarters of all Americans will be eligible to receive a mail ballot, albeit some will make it more accessible to voters than others.

Nine states, and the District of Columbia, will conduct their elections primarily by mail. This means that every registered voter will automatically receive a ballot by mail ahead of the election. Three of these states – California, D.C., and Vermont will be doing this for the first time this November. Most are Democratic strongholds – meaning that Biden is likely to win in these states.

In 34 states, voters can cite the coronavirus as a reason to vote absentee, or even cast a ballot by mail without specifying a reason. Some, like Delaware, send applications for mail-in-ballots to everyone. For others, voters would need to request a ballot directly from their local election office. These are mostly states in the Midwest and along the East Coast and include every state considered as a battleground this election – states where the race between candidates is especially close, so whoever wins the presidency will depend on whether or not they capture the electoral votes of these states.

The remaining five states – Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas are traditional Republican strongholds, and voters here will need a reason other than the virus to vote absentee. This means that most voters in these states will need to vote in person at a polling station, so we’ll likely see decisive results for these states come in right on Election Day.

Differences in when a ballot can be sent in, and when they are counted, also exist across states. Roughly half of the states – a fair mix of party strongholds and battlegrounds – require mail-in ballots to be received on or before Election Day. The other half, which accounts for 66% of the country’s 538 Electoral College votes, requires that ballots be postmarked on or before Election Day but can be received at a later date.

Many of these allow for a grace period of up to a week for ballots to arrive should there be any Postal Service delays, which seems likely considering President Trump has blocked additional funding to the service – that which itself is undergoing budget cutbacks. These states will arguably be more important in deciding this election, as this means that a winner may not be declared straight away on election night.

For voters who cannot vote by mail, or would rather vote in person before Election Day, all but four states offer some form of early in-person voting to all registered voters. In Mississippi and Missouri, an excuse to vote early is necessary. The other two, New Jersey and Oregon allow for early in-person voting albeit in a limited manner, as their elections will be conducted entirely by mail.

Postal votes also tend to take longer to count once they have arrived. Again, how and when they count them depends on the rules set out by different states. Some states, like Florida, have legal precedents that allow for mail votes to be counted before Election Day – but most states will not start counting them until the polls have closed. In 2016, the final vote took over a month to count with 30 million mail-in votes, and with that number possibly exceeding 80 million this time, we’ll just have to see how long that takes.

How it works

Election officials vet mail ballots with a series of thorough checks to ensure they are sent to, filled in, and properly returned from a registered voter. Voter registration information shows whether a person is properly registered in a state, and a requirement to fill in identifying details such as birth date and Social Security number (the American version of our BSN) on a mail-in ballot helps to confirm that they are the real person. Also, most states require voters to sign the ballot’s return envelope, which is then cross-checked with their signature on the voter registration system.

Previous elections have seen the primary reason for mail-in ballots to be rejected as not having a verifiable signature, or even just signing in the wrong place, so it is crucial for voters to fill in this information correctly. Human error may be a significant issue in November, as the Pew Research Center found that only 20% of all voters nationally said that they have previously had experience with voting by mail, so we’ll see how this turns out.

If officials detect problems with any of these requirements on personal details, they will contact the voter to account for the issue. This may take days, however, so if a mail-in ballot is sent in too close to Election Day and face an issue, they risk rejection. Other than that, officials can also send the ballots to prosecutors to investigate further should there be a more serious problem.

A feasible model for mail-in voting the US could choose to adopt on a nation-wide scale lies in the state of Washington, which had conducted its elections mostly by mail since 2005. Here, ballots are tied to specific individuals, with unique bar codes that allow for voters to track their ballot after it was mailed – similar to how we track our Bol packages here. Such a comprehensive system creates a safeguard that makes it difficult for anyone to attempt to print fraudulent ballots without being detected.

Absentee vs. mail-in ballot

Is there a difference between the two? These terms are used interchangeably, which is often confusing for not just for Americans, but also for us who wish to understand this election.

An absentee ballot is used to cast an absentee vote, which is submitted by someone who cannot be physically present at a polling station on Election Day. Every state allows this kind of voting in some form, and federal law requires absentee ballots to be sent to the military and overseas voters for federal elections. In essence, absentee ballots refer to mail-in ballots from states where voters need to request a mail-in ballot, so these terms mean the same thing for a majority of Americans.

In the nine states where registered voters automatically receive a mail-in ballot for this election, an absentee ballot can specifically refer to a ballot requested by a voter who will be out of the state (for college, traveling, etc.) during the election, meaning that they won’t be able to receive a ballot at their registered address.

So in essence, these two terms mean the same thing. There are some very small differences, but don’t get too lost in separating one from another when watching this election – since both refer to mail-in voting.

“Voter fraud?”

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

In the race leading up to November, President Trump has consistently made a series of false accusations on the risk of embracing mail-in voting. In 2018, the President even founded a commission with the task of investigating election corruption, which found no real evidence of fraud before being dismissed.

Voting fraud is extremely rare in the US, and voting by mail is no exception. In the past 20 years, over 250 million votes have been cast by mail, and according to data from the Heritage Foundation, there have only been 1,285 proven cases of voter fraud resulting in 1,100 convictions. Experts also say that any issue of fraud big enough to tilt a major election – such as stealing enough envelopes from mailboxes, printing enough fake ballots, or stealing enough absentee votes – would essentially be impossible hide at the national level. So yes, you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than to encounter a case of voter fraud this election.

After November

It’s very likely at this point that the early leader on election night may not end up winning the election – a possibility pushed by Biden, who is determined for every vote to be counted; but counteracted by President Trump, who has repeatedly insisted that the election will be called on election night. The race will almost certainly drag out over the weeks following the election, and with the President making claims that he may not commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election, the situation is rather alarming.

President Trump has said that the election result could end up in the Supreme Court, where the judiciary is expected to shift even more conservative following the death of known-progressive Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to which Trump has appointed right-leaning Amy Coney Barrett as the replacement for her seat as an Associate Justice. Coney Barrett is likely to be confirmed under a Republican-majority Senate – which has the sole power to approve justices for the Supreme Court, meaning that we’ll probably a 6-3 swing between conservatives and progressives, respectively, on the Court by Election Day.

If the judiciary swing towards Trump’s favor should the results of this election go to the Supreme Court, this may lead to further instability in the United States to which we’ll have no clear way to expect what would happen. However, note that the US do have consolidated institutions and checks on power put in place that commits to a peaceful transfer of power, so any radical claim such as that the President “will be dragged out of the White House by the military” is just pure exaggeration – at least for now.

Global implications

Most developed countries actually ban mail-in voting unless the citizen is living abroad, and some require voters to go through a comprehensive identification process and/or give a justifiable reason for absence, so the US is preparing itself to set a global precedent for future elections.

Among European democracies, only France so far has made an exception this year on the absentee ballot ban to those who are sick or at particular risk during the pandemic for its municipal elections. It previously banned absentee voting in 1975 after massive fraud in Corsica, where postal ballots were stolen or bought, with some casting multiple votes and mail-in ballots were even used to cast the votes of dead people. Many European countries have also gone through similar experiences, so as a result, voting across the European Union has primarily been limited to in-person voting. This, however, may change with the pandemic and the US elections.

Being the world’s largest developed democracy, the US undoubtedly displays influential political precedents on a regular occasion to the rest of the world. Whether it’s a trend of rising populism this decade, increased political polarization in the Western world or negative perceptions on immigration, the way in which this election is conducted is likely to be the same.

If this mail-in election goes smoothly as most Americans hope for it to be, we’ll have seen an excruciatingly divisive America succeed at selecting their next president in a way where most Americans filled in their ballot from the comforts of their living room rather than at an actual polling station.

A successful election will show contemporary democracies that voter fraud should not be feared with today’s ability to set out safeguards that allow for a transparent voting process that may not have been possible in the past. With this pandemic, the first issue at hand should be to ensure that as many voters get to vote as possible – and mail-in voting seems to be the most feasible solution.

However, if America’s election continues to be tarnished by accusations of fraud from its current commander-in-chief and Republican leaders after the election – which is likely – this will undoubtedly project an alarming image to the rest of the world that will certainly tarnish the US’ decision to conduct an election by mail. Although, note that American democracy is a system unlike any other, so it may be difficult at this point to transcend any particular implications to other democracies around the world. All we can do is watch how this plays out.

Sources | The New York Times, BBC, The Economist, Reuters, FiveThirtyEight