How COVID-19 Has Fast-Tracked Voting by Mail – and What Reporters Need to Know

June 16, 2020 — Demand for absentee and vote-by-mail ballots has surged amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but most states are mired in litigation about the practice. Opposition persists despite evidence that the risk of fraud is miniscule, experts told journalists at a National Press Foundation online briefing.

But elections are run by each state, and many are struggling to adapt to the shift. Voters who expect to know their next president by the morning after Election Day had better get used to waiting, said Herb Jackson, politics editor for CQ Roll Call.

“People should stop expecting to know on election night who won,” said Jackson, who has tracked the use of voting by mail options during the 2020 presidential primaries. He was joined by Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and Adam Bonica, an associate professor of political science at Stanford University.

To help reporters covering the issue, Jackson (Twitter) offered a set of questions to ask if a state is moving to boost the mail-in component of its election. (His list is here.) The first three deal with the ballots themselves: Who gets one? How are they protected? And how are they returned?

It’s also important to report on what in-person voting options remain, since there are plenty of people who don’t like or trust a mailed-in ballot. Many people fought for the right to vote and they feel better doing it in person, rather than trusting the U.S. Postal Service to deliver a ballot or a drop box to hold one securely, Jackson said.

And don’t expect all of this to go off smoothly. “There will be mistakes,” Jackson said. For evidence, he didn’t need to look any further than his mailbox. He recently received a ballot for a special city council election in Washington, D.C., that had his address but another person’s name on it.

The experts said voting by mail levels the playing field for voters who consistently cite lack of time as a reason why they do not go to the polls.

Bonica (bio, Twitter) has found that elections with all-mail voting increase turnout among everyone – especially groups that tend to vote less frequently. Recent work by Bonica and his colleagues found that in Colorado, which switched to voting by mail in 2013, turnout in 2018 increased among nearly every group studied The biggest increases were among young people, voters of color, less-educated people and blue-collar workers. The youngest voters – those 30 and under – turned out at a 16% higher rate.

For his work, Bonica used complete voter files, which are publicly available government records of who is registered to vote and who cast ballots in past elections. He also used the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey to access data on why people say they don’t vote.

Study after study has found very low levels of fraud in mail-in voting. And contrary to current perceptions, voting by mail has not in the past appeared to benefit either political party, the experts said. Voters of both parties turn out at higher rates.

The pandemic has triggered massive increases in voting by mail in most states. Nevada went from 9% of mail ballots during 2018 elections to 98% during the 2020 primary, according to Weiser (bio, Twitter).

“The country is changing its entire election system,” Weiser said.

But efforts to increase mail balloting in several states have been stymied by election officials. During the 2020 primaries, more than 80 lawsuits seeking to expand voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic have been filed; they challenge voting rules in 34 states plus the District of Columbia.

The lawsuits deal with the reasons voters can request a mail ballot. For example, are fears of the coronavirus enough? Fifteen states require an excuse to receive a mail ballot, said Weiser. Some impose witness, notary or documentary requirements; ballot counting deadlines; or other barriers. (Election Law Blog has been tracking all the cases and provides original complaints and, if available, resolutions.)

Much of the public discussion over voting by mail has revolved around the contention that it is rife with fraud. Several news organizations have knocked down those claims (see The New York Times, The Washington Post, PBS NewsHour), and Weiser and Bonica said the security features built into mail voting make fraud difficult to pull off – and therefore rare (“infinitesimally small,” according to Weiser). There are well-documented cases of fraud. But they number in the hundreds, out of the hundreds of millions of ballots cast.

In contrast, internet voting is not secure and should not be permitted in the United States, the experts agreed.


This program is funded by Arnold Ventures. NPF is solely responsible for the content.


Adam Bonica
Associate professor of political science, Stanford University
Herb Jackson
Politics editor, Roll Call and CQ Now
Wendy Weiser
Director, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
Policy Papers and Backgrounds
Resources and Data on Vote-By-Mail Systems
Media Coverage of Vote-By-Mail Issues
Wendy Weiser on the risk of voter fraud.
Herb Jackson on mistakes in the ballot system.
Covering Voting By Mail full briefing
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