Voting by mail has been common in California almost 40 years, since the state did away with the requirement for an excuse if folks wanted to cast an absentee ballot.
Now, using emergency powers he took during the coronavirus emergency, Gov. Gavin Newsom has made it all but universal in the fall election. In some other states, this seems radical, but it won’t change much in California.
At first, California’s no-excuse mail voting system clearly benefited Republicans, who first employed mass mail balloting and upset then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the 1982 run for governor, where Bradley led every pre-election poll.
But Democrats quickly caught on, and by the 1990s began holding ballot-marking parties welcoming anyone who put in a standing order to vote by mail.
Later came techniques like “ballot harvesting,” where operatives of both major parties go door to door collecting mail ballots to be dropped off at polling places, now often called vote centers. President Trump and wife Melania voted this way in Florida’s spring primary election, handing their mail ballots to an aide who dropped them off in West Palm Beach.
Until now, this has all been a matter of choice. In the state’s last general election, in 2018, more than 60 percent of ballots were mailed in or dropped off. Lines at polling places have grown shorter with each election, causing some counties to send mail ballots to all voters.
Now it appears the coronavirus pandemic may all but end in-person voting. For even with social distance in lines where voters stand six feet apart, fear might keep many away from the polls until a COVID-19 vaccine is in near ubiquitous use.
The fear is valid: When partisan-oriented, Republican-dominated courts refused to allow postponement of Wisconsin’s April primary election, the virus infected dozens of voters and poll workers.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has now become a national leader in a drive to allow mail voting everywhere. “What we saw in Wisconsin should serve as a warning, not a preview,” he said the other day. “Without proper planning, voters nationwide could be left to make the same stark choice that voters in Wisconsin were forced to make: exercising their right to vote versus protecting their health…”
Ironically, considering how he cast his latest vote, Trump leads the other side in this key election-year dispute. On March 30, he warned on his favorite interview outlet, “Fox and Friends,” about “levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” It was the first time any GOP leader openly admitted the party’s very survival hinges on its efforts at vote suppression in states now dominated by Republicans. Trump then added that “I think mail-in voting is horrible. It’s corrupt.”
Except it isn’t. Despite many investigations over three decades, no one has yet found evidence of significant fraud in mail voting. Oregon, for one example, has staged all-mail elections since 1998, with no hint of corruption.
Common anti-fraud tactics include signature matching, multilayer security envelopes, and bar codes for tracking.
Then there’s Trump’s theory that voting by mail skews elections to the Democrats. If this were true, it would be because of the well-established political reality that the heavier the turnout in any election, the more likely Democrats will win. That’s one reason Republicans often do better in lightly-attended special elections than in massive general votes.
But Stanford University research indicates there is no partisan advantage at all in mail elections.
Researchers there studied voting in California, Utah and Washington state because their use of mail balloting varied by county, allowing for comparison of areas that had ubiquitous mail ballots and others that did not.
The findings showed the change in the share of voters registering as Democrats ranged from negative 0.1 percent to plus 0.3 percent, negligible differences that can also be explained by population shifts.
“We don’t have any reason to think there are going to be big differences in partisan outcomes,” the researchers concluded.
So there should be no real obstacle or disadvantage to all-mail elections here or elsewhere – except for the long-held Republican fears of any extremely large-scale voting.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition.