Can Voting by Mail Ensure a Safe and Secure Election?

The challenges and misconceptions of vote-by-mail

The swiftly approaching November presidential elections have made many wonder how the current COVID-19 pandemic will affect their ability to vote. As a significant number of states move to provide a vote-by-mail alternative, many people are raising concerns about the efficacy of the system. How does it work? Does it increase or decrease the likelihood of election fraud? How will it affect voter participation? These concerns and more are addressed by Maria Carnovale, lead policy analyst at Duke University’s Initiative for Science and Society, in her June 24 CSPO webinar, “Can Voting by Mail Ensure a Safe and Secure Election?” and her May 12 Issues article, “Will the Idea of Vote-by-Mail Survive COVID-19?

Carnovale addresses three main assumptions made by both sides of the political spectrum, maintaining that there is both truth and misconception in each of these assumptions. The issues discussed are as follows: vote-by-mail decreases the spread of COVID-19 contagion, vote-by-mail increases turnout of underrepresented groups, and lastly, that vote-by-mail is prone to election fraud.

As COVID-19 cases continue to increase across the country, state and federal officials remain focused on protecting the health of citizens and residents. In-person voting presents very clear risks to the likelihood of increasing the spread of the virus; however, there is no definitive evidence to say that voting by mail will decrease the spread of the coronavirus. While some data from the Wisconsin primaries suggest that voting by mail can help decrease infection rates, it is not known for sure, and therefore cannot be taken as fact.

Next, there is the question of potentially increasing voter participation from underrepresented groups such as minorities, communities of lower socioeconomic status, and individuals with disabilities. There is again, a lack of consensus on this matter. Some studies show that the vote-by-mail option increases turnout among these marginalized groups, while others suggest that it disproportionately increases the number of resource rich voters. This includes individuals with higher education and higher income levels.

Finally, the main concern on both sides is the possibility for election fraud. A number of states, such as Oregon, had vote-by-mail practices in place before the pandemic.  These states have had little to no issues with election fraud, but they have gradually scaled up their vote-by-mail infrastructures over years rather than attempting to implement statewide systems in a matter of months. States that are recently adopting the option must be vigilant in boosting their infrastructures and revamping their cybersecurity practices to avoid manipulation of data belonging to registered voters. Despite this, Carnovale also notes that due to already rampant mistrust in voting systems, questions of fraud are likely to be raised regardless of the results and the precautions that were taken.

To hear more about some of the security issues and proposed solutions regarding voting by mail, as well as suggested alternatives if states do not adopt this option, check out the webinar and her article!