Vote by Mail: The Pandemic Election

Stack of lettersMany Americans say they don’t feel safe showing up to the polls this year, and are advocating for an option to vote by mail. Can states overcome the logistical challenges of implementing a mail voting system? And can they do it in time?

April 12, 2020

Add this to the long list of occasions that don’t allow social distancing: Election Day. Polling places – full of high-touch surfaces (pens, touchscreens, tables) and staffed by workers who interact with hundreds of voters who have waited in line together – are not a great place to avoid the coronavirus.

It’s no wonder that in a recent survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they were uncomfortable going to a polling place. And for poll workers, Election Day could be particularly risky; the majority are in their 60s or older, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. As the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb, traditional in-person elections are looking like a giant public health hazard.

That’s why people from across the political spectrum want voters to be able to cast their ballots from the safety of home. Experts agree that turnout in the 2020 primary and general elections will be miserably low without a vote-by-mail option. But states have a lot of logistics to figure out if they want to make mail voting a reality.

How It Works

Fortunately, we already have a blueprint for what vote-by-mail could look like. In five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – all registered voters automatically receive ballots and then have two weeks to mail them back or deliver them to ballot drop sites in places like schools, libraries, and fire stations. Another 28 states and Washington, D.C. allow “no-excuse” absentee voting, meaning that anyone who wants to vote by mail can do so. All states allow absentee voting, though some have strict rules for who can take advantage of it.

So, can’t states simply let all voters cast absentee ballots this year? It’s not that simple.


Governors and election officials across the country are trying to expand vote-by-mail for upcoming primary elections, but even the most dedicated are running into barriers. Here are some of the most important ones.

Capacity: Many states are not prepared for a huge influx of mail ballots, experts say. In Georgia, where the Secretary of State announced that every registered voter will receive a ballot in the mail for the upcoming primary, absentee ballots typically make up only five to seven percent of the vote. If every registered voter casts a ballot by mail, Georgia election officials could be dealing with nearly seven million pieces of paper.

States that expand vote-by-mail will need to figure out where to store and secure all these paper ballots. Further, election officials contract with a handful of companies to print and mail out ballots. If everyone starts using mail ballots on short notice, resources will quickly become overtaxed.

Verification: Election officials need a way to verify that a ballot is coming from the right voter, and they most commonly do this by matching a voter’s signature on a mail-in ballot with the signature they have on file for that voter. If the signatures do not match, some states allow voters to verify their identities, but may have tight deadlines for doing so. In states that expand vote-by-mail, all that signature matching could take a while, and officials may need to manage a process for voters to verify their identities if their signatures do not match.

Education: Despite any shortcomings of our current system, seasoned voters generally know how it works. Moving to a new system requires that voters understand that new system – and this year, education will need to happen quickly. Take Georgia again. It’s an open primary state, which means that voting by mail in a primary election would require four separate mail transactions: 1) the state mails a ballot request form to each voter, 2) the voter requests a ballot for whichever party they want, 3) the state mails that ballot, and 4) the voter completes and returns it. Will voters know all this? And will they know all the deadlines?

Access: Voting by mail isn’t ideal for everyone. Some voters may need in-person assistance to complete their ballots, such as people with disabilities that make them unable to use a pen on a paper ballot, or those with limited English proficiency.

Without a vote-by-mail option, some Americans may very simply be unable to cast ballots this year, or will choose to avoid the polls out of fear for their health. States that want to make voting accessible to all will need to act quickly.

You can’t just wave a magic wand and have this happen,” Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, told Pro Publica. “If we want to do this for the November elections, we need to start making preparations now.”

Learn More

Fair Election Roadmap: The Brennan Center for Justice issued a report with recommendations for how states can ensure “free, fair, accessible, and secure” elections in 2020. They suggest expanding vote-by-mail, keeping polling places open for those who need them, and allowing extra time for election officials to certify results – via Brennan Center for Justice

Vote at Home: This handy list of resources has everything you ever wanted to know about voting by mail. It includes research on mail voting, case studies of localities that use it, and responses to common concerns – via National Vote at Home Institute

State by State: is tracking how each state is handling elections during the coronavirus pandemic. Check back regularly to see if your state is expanding mail voting and if there are any new deadlines you need to know about. And of course, it’s always worth taking a moment to make sure you’re registered to vote – via

Pros and Cons: States are weighing the pros and cons as they continue to consider expanding vote-by-mail. The upside: long-term financial savings and higher voter turnout. The downside: higher up-front costs, potential for more mistakes, and loss of an in-person civic experience – via National Conference of State Legislatures

Increase Turnout: Two writers say that vote-by-mail systems increase voter turnout and don’t appear to benefit either party at the expense of the other. In fact, in Colorado, vote-by-mail boosted turnout among middle-of-the-road voters more than strong partisans – via The Washington Post

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This article originally appeared in the April 12, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and published articles — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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