The pandemic will change the way millions cast ballots. Here’s the state of absentee voting in the U.S.


Washington Post: The coronavirus pandemic is set to change the way millions of Americans can vote in November, as states expand access to mail-in voting as a safer alternative to in-person voting.

As of now, nearly 180 million Americans who are eligible to vote would be able to cast a ballot by mail. Of those, 22 million live in states that will accept fear of the coronavirus as an excuse to vote absentee, or have switched to become “no excuse” states.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia already allowed anyone to vote absentee. But many of these places are making the process easier. California will start proactively mailing ballots to registered voters, joining universal vote-by-mail states such as Colorado. Many states will send every registered voter an absentee-ballot application.

These types of statewide expansions affect another 63 million eligible voters. In some states like Nebraska, individual counties are planning to send mail-in voting applications in the absence of a statewide directive.

For voters in nine states, in-person voting remains the only option unless they can provide an approved reason not related to fear of the coronavirus. Traditional absentee excuses include military deployments or illness.

The partisan division over vote-by-mail access is not always clear-cut. Several blue states have used universal mail-in voting for years, but so has Utah. Many Southern states disallow fear of the coronavirus as an absentee excuse, but so does Connecticut and New York.

In response to the coronavirus, nearly half of all states expanded access to mail ballots for their primaries, either by allowing fear of the coronavirus as an reason or proactively sending an application or ballot to every registered voter. Fewer have taken action for the general election, as the move has become increasingly partisan and subject to litigation.

President Trump has made numerous unfounded claims that mail-in voting will create widespread abuse and fraud. His suspicions are out of step with the views of election experts and many within his own party, who are building large-scale vote-by-mail programs. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found only 372 cases of potential fraud out of roughly 14.6 million ballots cast by mail in 2016 and 2018.

Only a quarter of voters used mailed ballots in 2018, and they mostly resided in a handful of states. Nearly everyone who voted in Oregon, the first state to issue all ballots by mail in 2000, did so by mail. But in most states, fewer than 10 percent of voters did.

Even in states that haven’t made absentee voting easier, the number of ballot requests is still expected to spike. To meet this challenge, local election officials will have to overcome numerous hurdles with little time and money to spare. They must acquire large volumes of specialized envelopes and paper. Additional staff, and in some cases machines, are necessary to open, sort and tabulate postal ballots and verify signatures. This staff needs to be trained, and voters need to be educated on the process.

These unexpected expenditures come as the coronavirus pandemic has pummeled local budgets and hit a corner of government — election administration — that’s been underfunded for decades.

“They operate without the staff they need in the normal or they don’t have enough equipment in the normal,” says Amber McReynolds, chief executive of Vote at Home, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocating for and advising on how to conduct elections by mail. “None of this is a new problem, but it’s exacerbated in a pandemic.”

For postal-first states such as Hawaii and Oregon, it took years to fully adapt, according to Tammy Patrick, a former election official who is now a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund. A timeline for election officials put together by the Department of Homeland Security showed that the process for expanding mail-in voting should have begun in April. Patrick says it’s still possible for states to adapt, but “time is running out to make any of these changes.”