Mail-in Voting and its Who, What, When, Where, and How

By Phoebe Weinstein ’22

Mail-in ballots to be counted (Photo Credit: WBUR)
Mail-in ballots to be counted (Photo Credit: WBUR)

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many flaws in our democracy—flaws to which our government was built to adapt. We have been reintroduced to the imperfections of American voting, which are more apparent than ever before: voter suppression, low turnout, and fraud, to name a few. One solution, which has been subject to often acrimonious debate, is national mail-in voting.


Absentee ballots are a form of mail-in voting. Absentee ballots have eligibility requirements, providing a vote for those unable to be physically present at the polls. They have been used by many politicians who are against mail-in voting, such as President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The option of absentee ballots is enjoyed in all states. Some states, such as Oregon, have always allowed voting by mail with or without the eligibility requirements of absentee ballots. Nationally, fraudulent votes have represented only .00006% of total mail-in ballots.


It is daunting to consider how we as a country must rework our systems of democracy, not only during this pandemic but to become a more just and constitutional entity. Mail-in voting provides more equalized opportunity for voter turnout than our current polling system, opening our democracy to citizens working during election hours, taking care of children alone, victims of voter suppression, and many others. However, to implement mail-in voting requires planning, regulations, and information; our country needs to bridge the trichotomies between the federal government, the state government, and the people.


One unprecedented aspect of this implementation would be an elongated election period. “Election night”—or even “Election Day”—may become obsolete, due to the long hours it will take to receive, analyze, approve, and count mail-in ballots. The 2016 election and Trump’s premature election speech saw the popular vote sway later that night from a 1 million vote deficit for nominee Hillary Clinton to 3 million in her favor. This reaction is dangerous; it has the potential to incite anger and cause rallying against suspected—though likely illegitimate claims of—voter fraud. Therefore, it is the responsibility of our government to inform the public sphere. Alongside providing written regulations and standards for mail-in voting, such as required signature matching and voter registration rolls, the federal government would be prudent to finance an educational campaign on the system itself. Though unlikely due to the current administration’s open disdain for mail-in voting, informational output on the subject would better equip the country’s voters and prepare us to take the next step in a pandemic-ridden nation. Hand-in-hand with government negligence, a lack of citizen education on COVID-19 resulted in a far more dire national situation that could have—and should have—been avoided. To educate and inform the public is to better both the representatives elected to legislate and enforce the safety of this country.


As aforementioned, many states have implemented mail-in voting for many years. With the imposition of overall federal regulation, state governments could execute the system with detail and caution. With their citizens registering online, states could distribute ballots through the post and all across the country individuals could—and hopefully would—vote from the safety of their own homes, employing an absentee ballot where the eligibility requirement is simply American exposure to COVID-19. Federal legislation would regulate state caution, providing guidance for signature matching and ballot counting.


The pandemic has shed light on many imperfections in our country, and not just within our systems of voting; this summer especially, issues of police brutality, inaccessible healthcare, and the politicization and polarization of science have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. All of these issues, however, have been ever-present. These are not new questions—they are simply questions the more privileged of us have been able to avoid acknowledging for far too long. The polls have been historically more inaccessible to lower-income individuals and Black and Indigenous Americans, and yet the system has not changed. We have the opportunity to prioritize democracy and save thousands of lives. Mail-in voting is just another standard of higher equity radicalized by the country’s polarized public sphere and larger government. With regulations of cooperative federalism, mail-in voting will make America a more equitable, democratic, and safer nation.