Vote-by-Mail: COVID-19 and the 2020 Presidential Primaries

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Political Science



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In this year of pandemic, it seems assured that a record number of citizens will choose to vote by mail. But approval of this method of voting appears increasingly divided along partisan lines, thanks in part to President Trump’s declamations. Evidence from the presidential primaries held earlier this year indicates that allegiance to the president, as well as relative lack of concern about the COVID-19 virus, made voters less likely to choose to vote by mail.

Election administration is once again part of the national conversation in the United States. The ways that voters cast their ballots are relatively obscure matters to most individuals most of the time. Prominent national events, however, can raise the salience of the issue. After the 2000 presidential election and the vote-counting debacle in Florida, the merits of using punch cards was called into question. With bipartisan consensus in 2002, Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the “Help America Vote Act,” which eliminated punch cards and lever machines and increased electronic voting in many states. With evidence of Russian attempts to hack into voting machine systems in the 2016 election, voters again began to consider whether their votes were being counted securely and accurately. Some states began to decertify many of those electronic voting machines purchased after the 2000 election. The goal was to return to a voting system that had a paper trail. Now, with the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the safety of voting in-person is questioned and a national conversation about vote-by-mail (VBM) has begun.

All states have always had options for voters who are absent from the precinct or unable to get to the polls due to infirmness or illness on Election Day to cast their ballots by mail. But in the 2016 presidential elections, just three states – Colorado, Oregon, and Washington – conducted all voting by mail. By 2018 all Utah counties had implemented vote-by-mail (Franchi 2020), and Hawaii passed a bill in 2019 (Hawaii Office of Elections 2020) allowing that state to implement elections by mail beginning in 2020. However, now because of COVID-19, twenty states plus the District of Columbia have altered their election rules this year, and at least 83% of Americans will be permitted to cast their ballots by mail in November (Rabinowitz and Mayes 2020).

While COVID-19 would likely have been enough to bring the VBM conversation to the forefront, President Donald Trump heightens attention by tweeting about it and discussing it publicly. For instance, Trump tweeted May 26, “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed” (Trump 2020a, capitalization in original). Despite that tweet earning a fact-check notation from the social media company, two days later Trump reiterated his concerns about VBM: “MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE. IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY. WE CAN NEVER LET THIS TRAGEDY BEFALL OUR NATION” (Trump 2020b, capitalization in original). Since May, Trump has continued to make inaccurate statements about the safety and security of VBM, all while encouraging his supporters to make use of it as a mechanism to cast their own ballots (Chalfant 2020). While the full implications of COVID-19 and Trump’s politicization of vote-by-mail remain to be seen, we can examine election returns from several states in the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries to see how voters are responding to the changing circumstances surrounding how they cast their ballots.

In this paper, I briefly examine existing scholarship on VBM, specifically its impact on turnout and vote choice. Since the lockdowns associated with COVID-19 occurred in the middle of the 2020 presidential primary season, we can consider how VBM changed as a result. I look at several states’ 2020 presidential primary returns, considering how the timing of the presidential primaries and the onset of COVID-19 affected how Americans cast their ballots. Finally, I conclude by thinking about what the November elections might look like, and the future of VBM beyond 2020.


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