Americans want a safe way to vote in this year of pandemic, but may be equally anxious that their vote gets counted. Mail-in or absentee voting has drawn the public’s attention, but don’t dismiss early voting as an option, says Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He spoke about that and other election issues with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
You think early voting is worth considering even for those with concerns about the safety of voting in person. Why?
The best option depends on how worried one is about some small, hard-to-estimate risks. There is more risk of your ballot not being properly tabulated if you request a mail-in or absentee ballot, fill it out and drop it into the mail by Election Day, Nov. 3, than if you complete the ballot at a polling station and personally feed it into a machine.
Errors are unlikely either way, but there are more opportunities for problems – including mistakes in filling out the ballot – when voting by mail. Using a drop-off box improves the odds.
The riskiest way to vote in terms of contracting COVID-19 is surely to wait for Election Day, then visit your local precinct voting location, hoping not to see crowds. Early voting makes it feasible to approach the facility and, if there are lines or unmasked people, leave and return later.
Given that many voters will want to vote by mail, how can states ensure it’s done well, and that the results are trusted?
State and county officials should publicize deadlines and rules, such as legally permitted ways to return a mail-in ballot. They should also prepare for a large surge in demand – how large is tough to guess – by having far more ballots ready than they expect to need, if budgets allow. And they should generally be transparent.
It would be wise to warn voters that final, official results could be delayed. For races that are not very close, that is of little importance, but close races might not be called for several days, as officials wait for last-minute ballots to trickle in.
What do individual voters need to know, and plan for, if they choose to vote by mail?
Requesting an absentee ballot, at least in Illinois, is unnecessary for those who voted in 2018, 2019 or the 2020 primary – applications will be sent to them automatically. For others, requests can be made in multiple modes.
The ballot can be postmarked in Illinois as late as Tuesday, Nov. 3, though the rules are different in other states. It should be mailed or dropped off by the voter, except if the voter signs the necessary form to authorize someone else to do so. Handing one’s completed ballot to anyone not so authorized – other than an election official or postal worker – is illegal and unwise.
If one requests an absentee ballot and then decides to vote in person, that is permitted if the absentee ballot has not been submitted. The voter then votes provisionally and/or completes a form confirming that the mail ballot was not used and will not be used.
Democracies depend on voter confidence in the fairness of elections, and there are factors this year – political polarization and the pandemic – that could challenge that confidence. How do we judge what concerns or claims might be legitimate? What should we be prepared for?
I hope there are few extremely close races in places where some variety of administrative snafu is alleged or confirmed. Arguments may rage over how to handle late ballots, mailed ballots with unclear postmarks, or ballots submitted in batches without authorization. We could see long lines on Election Day and requests for extensions of closing time, if mail-in voting proves less popular than officials hope.
There are innumerable possibilities, and it is hard to anticipate what might be the “butterfly ballot” of 2020, referring to just one aspect of the tight and chaotic Florida vote in the 2000 presidential election. We will all be better off if few contests – least of all that for the presidency – get tangled up in legitimate controversy over administration. We should expect allegations of some kind, but we should be hesitant to leap to conclusions about conspiracy or sabotage. There can be smoke without fire.