This week, one of the federal government’s most mundane but essential functions, The United States Postal Service, suddenly became a political flashpoint, as both parties indulged in one of the most dangerous inclinations in American politics: the urge to cast doubt upon our electoral system’s integrity. Democrats and Republicans alike have a vested interest in popularizing the notion that the United States Postal Service (USPS), which has remained mostly nonpolitical throughout its almost 250 year history, is unable to handle the influx of mail-in ballots expected on November 3rd. Republicans, who believe that mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud, are seeking to sow the seeds of doubt in the electoral process in anticipation of a Biden victory. While I cannot explain or rationalize conservative fear of mail-in voting, given that election fraud involving mail-in ballots is exceedingly rare and there is no evidence that expanded mail-in voting benefits Democrats, its prevalence is confirmed by the ubiquity of rhetoric discrediting mail-in voting in the conservative media ecosystem. The USPS, which is controlled by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major donor to President Trump’s campaigns, has stated, presumably at the GOP’s behest, that it will be unable to deliver mail-in ballots in a timely fashion. As you shall see in a few paragraph’s time, this claim is patently false; Postmaster General DeJoy knows this, hence his refusal to reiterate that sentiment once he was placed under oath.
Democrats are similarly eager to create the narrative that the postal service is unable to deliver ballots properly, asserting at their convention and in congressional hearings that the USPS will likely bungle ballot delivery for this November’s election. The motive behind such rhetoric is to deflect attention from possible delays and irregularities in statewide elections for which Democratic secretaries of state are responsible. The Democrats’ claim does not stand up to scrutiny, given the expected number of mail-in ballots this November and the fluctuations in mail volumes that the USPS regularly handles without incident.
As Americans begin to feel more comfortable adjusting to social distancing protocols, the prospect of voting at a polling station is becoming less scary. Given that most of us are now comfortable going to the grocery store, provided that adequate precautions are taken, what makes waiting in line at a polling place so dangerous? Many of the long lines and dangerous conditions that plagued elections held early in the pandemic, such as the beleaguered Wisconsin primary, were caused by sudden shortages of polling places and poll workers. At the last minute, when many poll workers notified elections offices that they, understandably, were not comfortable working the polls, and certain types of facilities, such as old age homes, became unusable as polling places, election officials were left scrambling. When Wisconsin refused to postpone its primary, as other states had, the electoral infrastructure was left cut to the bone at the very last minute, with no time to adjust procedures and facilities to the new reality of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, since the fiasco in Milwaukee, where just five of the city’s 180 polling stations were open for Wisconsin’s April 7th primary election, many states have held elections in which socially-distant in-person voting has occurred without incident. Before November, elections officials will have even more time to secure adequate staff and polling stations for safe in-person voting. With socially-distant lines and universal mask-wearing, in-person voting should remain safe and universally offered to voters, especially young people, who are at a reduced risk of facing serious illness due to the coronavirus. Many Americans, in fact, have already chosen to vote in-person despite the increased availability of mail-in voting. Nationwide, since April, roughly half of voters who have cast ballots have done so at polling stations. Georgia, Delaware, Louisiana, and Nebraska have even held elections in which a majority of ballots were cast in-person.
Even if the vast majority of voters choose to cast their ballots through the mail, a scenario that public opinion polling shows is unlikely, the USPS will have no trouble delivering the ballots on-time. Every day, the USPS carries 392 million pieces of mail without a hitch. Even in an election with 100% turnout and absolutely no in-person voting, total mail volumes would increase by less than 2.8%, even when assuming an unrealistically tight timeline of two weeks for early voting. During busy periods such as the holiday season, the USPS regularly handles mail volume increases of more than 32% without incident. It defies logic that a much smaller increase over a much shorter timeframe would debilitate the entire postal system.
There is, however, another, more problematic, step involved in mail-in voting: the elections offices that count ballots. In stark contrast to the very modest increase in mail volumes that the USPS will have to deal with, these facilities will likely see huge increases in the number of ballots they will need to process. Since April, the portion of voters who cast their ballots by mail has increased almost fourfold, from 13% to 51%. Elections officials in Georgia, a state expected to be competitive in November’s presidential election, saw a 2,500% increase in mail-in ballots since the last presidential primary. In the primaries, when turnout tends to be lower than in general elections, the low number of total ballots cast meant that even a large increase in the percentage of mail-in ballots constituted a more manageable increase in the absolute number of mail-in votes. Even so, states such as New York had to invalidate up to 20% of ballots and took weeks to report results in close races. If a larger portion of the electorate continues to vote by mail (as it probably will) and total turnout grows (as is routine for the general election), other areas are likely to experience similar delays in November.
Last year, I had the unique opportunity to serve as an elections observer in a relatively low-turnout municipal election in San Francisco, where I witnessed firsthand the flaws of the system for processing mail-in ballots. To process a ballot, election workers must take it out of the envelope, ensure that the voter’s signature on the back of the envelope matches the one on file, and feed each card individually into a tabulation machine. The automated process of counting the vote is almost instant, but feeding each page of the ballot (of which there can be as many as four) into the machine is a laborious task. 2019 was the second year in a row in which the Department of Elections took weeks to finalize the results of a close citywide race due to delays in processing mail-in ballots. In San Francisco, much like most California counties, a majority of voters already voted by mail before the coronavirus pandemic, meaning that systems to process ballots have already been implemented at scale. While there is bound to be an increase in the percentage of ballots cast by mail due to the pandemic in California, I’m not worried about the state’s ability to properly scale up its mail-in ballot processing system, as the increase is likely to be modest, given that more than 70% of Californians cast their votes by mail before the pandemic. However, in states that are allowing no-excuse absentee voting for the first time, the number of mail in ballots to process is expected to increase several times over. This influx poses a significant risk of delaying election results. The real risk is not that ballots won’t make it to elections departments, but that they won’t be processed properly once they arrive.
This brings me back to why the Democratic Party feels the need to join the Republicans in illogically discrediting the USPS’ ability to deliver mail-in ballots. In most states, the Secretary of State bears responsibility for the conduct of elections. Bizarrely, most secretaries of state are partisan elected officials. In many of the states where holdups in ballot processing might throw the result of the election into doubt, including Arizona, North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the secretaries of state are Democrats. By prefabricating the narrative that the postal service, rather than local elections officials, are likely to cause delays in results, national Democrats are preparing to deflect blame from these secretaries of state should anything go wrong.
Democrats are vastly overestimating not only the number of people who will vote by mail but also the extent to which even an improbably large increase in the number of mail-in ballots would increase overall mail volumes. Their attention and political capital would be put to better use ensuring that elections departments are prepared to process mail-in ballots and ready to accommodate socially-distant in-person voting. Republicans, for their part, are also spreading misinformation about the virtually nonexistent issue of fraud. While this is irresponsible, misinformation has been the norm for the past four years. It is up to Democrats to prove that they are better than the lies and cynicism coming from the White House. If they hope to convince the American people to replace Donald Trump with Former Vice President Joe Biden, Democrats ought to lead by example in refraining from spreading the same kind of misinformation that they rightfully detest.
Photo Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer