Voting by mail represents progress, we’ve been told; no one should have to leave his home to exercise the franchise. Thus goes the reasoning behind a new law that requires every registered Californian to receive a ballot for the fall election through the U.S. Postal Service. But will convenience voting yield better outcomes? More likely it will make them worse.
Assembly Bill 860, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on June 18, is premised on ensuring safety in the era of the coronavirus. Yet Wisconsinites voted in person in April, and the predicted spike in coronavirus cases from that public assembly never materialized. The state’s caseload did climb, but no steep increase occurred in the days and weeks after the primary, just a steady rise that has continued, partly driven by expanded testing. Apparently the same can be said for the locations where George Floyd marches, encouraged by the media and many public officials, were held. The pandemic, it appears, was a useful crisis—voting by mail has long been a priority among progressives, and the coronavirus outbreak provided sufficient cover to institute it.
Proponents promise that vote-by-mail elections will be corruption-free. Yet we know that in the 2016 elections, as many as 319,000 mailed ballots were tossed out for various reasons, including signatures that didn’t match; that, according to a Los Angeles Times examination, “the preferred way to cheat is with mail-in ballots”; and that absentee ballots, typically submitted by mail, provide the “easiest” path “to commit election fraud.”
Mark Hemingway persuasively argued recently in RealClearPolitics that “a significant increase in mail-in voting this fall could greatly incentivize ‘ballot harvesting’ where third parties collect mail-in ballots on behalf of voters and deliver them to election officials.” Ballot harvesting is a “recipe for mischief and wrongdoing,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Hans A. von Spakovsky. It’s risky, he argues, to let “individuals other than the voter or his immediate family to handle absentee ballots,” because “neither voters nor election officials can verify that the secrecy of the ballot was not compromised or that the ballot submitted in the voter’s name by a third party accurately reflects the voter’s choices and was not fraudulently changed by the vote harvester.”
Even if election integrity were never in question, vote-by-mail is still troubling, because it makes voting too easy. Participating in democracy shouldn’t be an afterthought. A voter who studies the candidates and issues, goes to the poll site on the designated day, and endures a certain amount of inconvenience demonstrates more commitment to the process than the voter who fills out a ballot that came in the mail and who may not bother to vote if more were required of him. A survey taken in 2017 found that an alarming portion of Americans don’t know much about our system of government: 37 percent could not name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment; only 26 percent could name all three branches of government, while a third could not name any. Another poll, taken three years earlier, revealed that only 41 percent of registered voters could name the majority party in both congressional chambers, while 19 percent were unsure. These Americans have the same right to vote as those who stay informed, of course, but why make it any easier than it already is?
Another weak link in the argument for mail-in balloting is voter remorse. Sometimes early or absentee voters regret their first choice. Many get a mulligan—they can vote again on Election Day in person, invalidating their original ballot (though not in California)—but doing so makes a mockery of the principle that an election is a reflection of public opinion at the end of a grinding campaign, as opposed to a rolling beauty contest. It also drags out and adds complexity to a vote-counting process already begging to be simplified. Our elections need to be better than this.
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