Vote-By-Mail Is Happening. Will We Be Ready?

Theoretical opposition to mail-in voting is beside the point. We need to focus on how state governments will meet demand for mail-in ballots.
April 17, 2020
Featured Image
Election workers sort vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP) (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

COVID-19 has already transformed the 2020 election, guaranteeing it will be unlike any other in recent history. I run American Unity PAC, a GOP Super PAC now in our fifth election cycle. We’ve spent millions of dollars electing and reelecting pro-freedom, pro-LGBT Republicans in the House and Senate. As our team looks ahead to November, we’re preparing for a vote-by-mail surge.

But not all Republicans are preparing for this massive shift to vote-by-mail. The president’s opposition has captured the attention of both Republicans and many in the media: why he opposes it, whether he’ll continue to oppose it, how he can justify opposing it when he himself voted by mail in Florida’s primary last month. This is how we ended up trapped in a debate about whether we should even allow the practice in the first place.

But this debate has no bearing on reality. We already allow voting by mail in every state.

Forty-five states have a system for absentee ballots, with some requiring pre-approved reasons for absentee voting and others not. The other five states (Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington) use vote-by-mail exclusively.

Whether the president supports voting by mail or not, it’s going to happen this fall. We instead need to focus on how state governments will meet demand for mail-in ballots.

Whatever system a state currently has, we can be sure that voters will surge the vote-by-mail options available to them. Consider: Would you rather expose yourself to a voting booth — shared by countless strangers after waiting in a long line — or request an absentee ballot? The safer choice seems pretty obvious, and tens millions of voters will likely reach the same conclusion.

Of course, it’s possible we could develop a vaccine or treatment before the election. We could also implement widespread testing and contact tracing. But nothing about the federal government’s response so far suggests we will. For now, we should assume the virus will continue to change behavior this fall.

And if that’s the case, we can predict record numbers of absentee ballots. It will be an extraordinary change from every previous election. In North Carolina and Georgia, both of which could be swing states in 2020, roughly six percent of voters cast ballots by mail in 2018.

This year, they’ll face a tsunami of absentee ballots and applications that the current state systems are not built to handle.

Campaigns will drive the absentee numbers even higher. Rather than sending out armies of volunteers to knock on doors, both parties will reallocate resources to reaching people online or by phone and help them register for absentee ballots.

The surge in ballots is coming. We must improve the current vote-by-mail system so that it’s reliable, secure, and scaled for tens of millions of ballots — and we only have a few months to pull it off.

This leads to the real question for Congress and for Trump: How are they going to help the states prepare? Theoretical opposition to mail-in voting is beside the point. Reporters should stop asking Republicans – especially Trump – him if they support voting by mail. They should ask instead: what practical steps are they taking to make sure states have the resources they need to hold secure, safe, and healthy elections?

When the president and congressional Republicans are preparing their answers, they should look to the states that implemented vote-by-mail years ago. Utah uses vote-by-mail exclusively, and is no one’s idea of a blue state.

Ohio, which has updated its absentee ballot system under Republican Governor Mike DeWine, allows voters to request absentee ballots online, and the state is actively encouraging voters to cast ballots by mail. Every other state should do the same and should appropriate the money needed to make the transition now.

Forget the bluster and temper tantrums. Vote-by-mail is happening. So how will we prepare?

Tyler Deaton

Tyler Deaton is the founder of Freedom to Believe and president of Allegiance Strategies, a D.C.-based center-right public affairs firm promoting free market, multicultural democracy.