“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” That inscription carved into the neo-classical facade of the Post Office on New York City’s 8th Avenue is an unofficial motto that has come to speak for something steadfast and reliable. Not in this US election year.
What’s the problem?
The intricacies of postal voting don’t often make headlines, but this year they could make history. Here’s why:
- Forecasters predict a surge in postal ballots for the November election because of concerns about in-person voting during a pandemic. Voters (particularly Democrats) are worried about the health risks of attending crowded polling stations, while administrators are anxious that social distancing measures could make voting queues unmanageably long.
- In light of the pandemic, 35 states have relaxed their postal voting rules: 11 states have expanded the eligibility criteria for mail-in ballots, allowing all registered voters to apply to vote by mail or letting them record concerns about the virus as a reason for requesting an absentee ballot. Several states are trialling all-mail voting (where ballots are posted to all voters) for the first time. The US is expecting 80 million postal votes altogether. For context: about 130 million votes were cast in all in the 2016 election.
But there’s a hitch:
- The United States Postal Service (USPS) has serious funding difficulties. The service is in debt to the tune of $160 billion – roughly equivalent to the entire GDP of Hungary. To cut costs, the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy (a logistics exec and Trump donor), has slowed down mail deliveries. USPS has warned 46 states that their postal ballots could be delayed and therefore may not be counted.
- At the same time, President Trump is deliberately undermining trust in the validity of postal voting. He has called it “very dangerous” and said it will lead to “massive electoral fraud.”
Trump’s opponents say he’s meddling with the postal service to disrupt Democrat votes.
What is Trump claiming?
That expanding postal voting will:
- lead to widespread voter fraud; he claims people will vote twice, print off and send dozens of mail-in ballots, and steal them from post boxes.
- damage the chances of Republicans.
Is there any evidence?
Voter fraud is uncommon in the United States, no matter the type of ballot.
Mail-ballot fraud is, therefore, also rare. A Washington Post analysis of voting data from Oregon, Washington and Colorado – three all-mail voting states – found only 372 possible cases of fraud out of a total 14.6 million postal ballots cast in the 2016 and 2018 elections.
It is, according to the New York Times, “incredibly hard to pull off undetected”. There are protections built in at each stage of the process to prevent mail-voting fraud:
- Voter registration: administrators check voters’ personal details like date of birth, home address and social security numbers to confirm that they are who they say they are.
- Ballot design: Postal ballots are hard to tamper with; they often are printed on special paper and in many states each voter has their own unique barcode.
- Counting and monitoring: Voters in most states are required to sign the return envelope with the ballot enclosed. Election officials check the signature against a database to ensure its authenticity. In 19 states voters whose signatures don’t match have a chance to fix the problem – but in the other 31 they don’t, and CNN reports that lawsuits have already been filed in swing states such as North Carolina to strengthen voters’ rights in signature verification cases.
- Experienced eyes: Postal workers are also on alert for irregularities in the mail (it’s quite easy for them to tell if a postbox was stuffed with ballots, for example).
There isn’t evidence that expanding access to postal voting will help or hinder either party. While it is true that more Democrats are planning to vote by post this year and more states are making that process simpler, studies of election turnout in states that have switched to all-mail voting do not show a significant upswing in Democrat turnout.
What could all this mean on election night?
The US could be heading for a full-blown constitutional crisis. There’s a scenario that Michael Bloomberg’s data company, Hawkfish, has called the “red mirage”. Here’s how it might play out:
- We know that more Democrats plan to vote by post, so their ballots will be slower to come in and slower to count. More Republicans are planning to vote in person, so their votes will be counted much faster.
On election night, in-person votes could add up in Trump’s favour. It’ll look like he is winning. On TV screens across the nation, maps will turn red. Trump might choose to declare victory.
- Days later, after mail-in ballots are counted, those totals could swing the other way to show a Democrat win.
- By then, it could be too late. If the result is to be determined by postal votes, then Trump supporters may not accept it after months of being told to distrust mail-in ballots.
The upshot: unless new developments dramatically widen the polling gap in Biden’s favour between now and 3 November, do not expect an uncontested result on the night.