“How Democrats Should Reform Elections in the States”

On this subject, I have a new essay, along with others writing on the same theme, published in the current edition of The American Prospect.  Here’s an excerpt on one issue I think has not received enough critical discussion:  among efforts to make voting more convenient, how should we think about the pros and cons of vote-by-mail versus expanded in-person early voting.  I believe it would be far better to expand early voting than vote-by-mail, for these reasons:

Another easy lift for Democrats is to make it easier to vote on a day other than a single workday. On this front, early voting and vote-by-mail (VBM) are to some extent functional alternatives, but early in-person voting has some clear advantages over VBM. States prefer VBM because it is less costly than staffing early-voting sites. But when there has been significant voter fraud in recent U.S. elections, it has been through the absentee ballot process, not in-person voting. In a notorious example, the courts ordered all the absentee ballots to be discarded in a Miami mayoral race in the mid-1990s because of pervasive absentee ballot fraud. As this article goes to press, North Carolina has refused to certify the results of one congressional race out of concern about possible absentee ballot fraud. No such problem has yet developed in the western states (Washington, Oregon, and Colorado) that now use VBM for all their elections, but we still ought to be concerned about the potential for fraud that VBM introduces.

Another problem with VBM, which became more apparent this year, is that it prolongs Election Day and raises suspicions about fraud when the outcome shifts in the prolonged ballot-counting. Many voters are unwilling to trust the U.S. Postal Service and prefer to turn their ballots in by hand on Election Day, even though they are casting VBM ballots. When VBM ballots come in on Election Day, checking the signatures on the ballots against the signatures on the registration rolls adds considerable delay to the counting process. In addition, the VBM system depends on the Postal Service’s efficiency and effectiveness. We now face situations— such as the recent elections in Arizona and California—in which hundreds of thousands of ballots still have to be counted after Election Day, and in which the winner cannot be determined well past a week afterward.

In a world of hyperpolarized political parties and a frenzied social media ecosystem, delays of this length in determining election winners are dangerous. We got a taste of this problem after the recent midterms, when Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called California’s election system “bizarre” and said that it “defies logic” because many congressional races in California took days to be decided and the Democrat ended up winning despite having been behind on election night. There was nothing nefarious about California’s process, but prolonged delays invite suspicions. When the stakes are high, partisans will question the legitimacy of the process, and public confidence in elections is jeopardized. To the extent we can achieve reform goals while bringing closure to election results closer to Election Day, we should do so. Early voting has clear advantages over VBM in this respect.

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