Is vote-by-mail needed to protect the 2020 election?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Wisconsin’s primary election — thrown into chaos by partisan clashes, late-night court decisions and long lines of masked voters — offers a “nightmare vision of what the whole country could see” in November if the coronavirus hasn’t been contained, the state’s Democratic Party chairman said.

Election experts and lawmakers have suggested a variety of contingencies to make sure people are able to vote in this year’s presidential election even if the virus makes lining up at polling places unsafe. A popular solution among Democrats is expanded access to mail-in ballots. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden, have come out in favor of the idea. President Trump said Republicans should “fight very hard” to block it and suggested it would make it harder for GOP candidates to get elected.

Every state currently allows some form of mail-in voting, but the level of access varies dramatically. Five states currently use vote-by-mail, in which a ballot is sent to every registered voter and only limited in-person voting options are available. California, North Dakota and Nebraska allow individual counties to opt for this system. The rest of the country requires voters to request an absentee ballot if they cannot or prefer not to vote in person. In 19 states, voters must provide a valid excuse — such as physical disability or travel — to receive an absentee ballot.

Why there’s debate

Advocates say vote-by-mail is an ideal solution for protecting the integrity of the election if coronavirus concerns make in-person voting untenable. No one should have to risk catching a potentially deadly virus in order to exercise their right to vote, they argue.

Vote-by-mail had significant support before the pandemic. Proponents say it increases access to voting, especially for vulnerable people who may struggle to make it to a polling place on Election Day. Recent evidence suggests vote-by-mail can provide a significant boost in voter turnout.

Opponents of vote-by-mail, including prominent Republican lawmakers, say it would open the door for rampant voter fraud, though there’s little evidence of that from current vote-by-mail states. Others say a national mandate requiring mail-in ballots would undermine the principle that states should control their own election procedures.

The debate frequently splits along party lines, with Democrats accusing the GOP of trying to suppress the votes of likely Democratic voters and Republicans accusing Democrats of attempting an electoral “power grab.”

Even among those who support vote-by-mail in general, there’s concern about the logistics of having a nationwide system up and running by November. There are also fears that fights over mail-in balloting could lead to a flood of lawsuits that create even more confusion for voters.

What’s next

Some political analysts believe the only hope for Democrats to overcome staunch Republican opposition to vote-by-mail is to insist that it be included in any upcoming stimulus bills intended to stave off the economic impacts of the pandemic. Another relief package will likely be the subject of debate when Congress returns from recess later this month.



Voting shouldn’t mean putting your life at risk

“If implemented nationwide, it would free voters from having to choose between their well-being and their ability to participate in democracy.” — Charlotte Swasey, Crooked

Voting access must be defended during the pandemic

“Many public-health experts predict that Americans may need to take drastic measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus well past the general election. If that happens, robust access to voting-by-mail will be an essential way to ensure that every eligible American can participate in the 2020 election.” — Ian Millhiser, Vox

Without vote-by-mail, the virus could lead to an illegitimate election

“The United States is already at high levels of polarization and historically low levels of trust in government and fellow citizens. We cannot afford an election our people don’t believe in. … A solution is available: expanding absentee voting and drive-through voting.” — Rachel Kleinfeld and Joshua Kleinfeld, National Review

GOP opposition is purely partisan

“So why are Republicans afraid of making it easier to vote? It’s simple: the Republican Party base is white voters of middle to upper income voters, with strength among older voters. These have been traditionally the most reliable voters in low-turnout elections, and Republicans are simply terrified by the idea of anything that might encourage increased non-white turnout.” — Stuart Stevens, Daily Beast

Vote-by-mail should be used as a backup in extraordinary circumstances

“Universal voting by mail may not be a panacea in normal times. But every state should have a system in place for fair and orderly absentee balloting in emergencies like this one. No voter in America should ever again have to endure the breakdown of democracy that we are witnessing in Wisconsin.” — Walter Shapiro, Brennan Center for Justice

Turnout in the 2020 election could crater without vote-by-mail

“The 2020 presidential election looked like it was going to feature record turnout. Voters in 2018 turned out in historic numbers, and polling indicated that voter excitement was high heading into 2020. Voter enthusiasm remains high, but limited evidence … suggests that the coronavirus pandemic may cause a drop in turnout in November if voting by mail is not made an option for voters.” — Harry Enten, CNN

Vote-by-mail does not lead to more fraud

“Despite fearmongering about voter fraud, vote by mail is routine in most states and universal in several, with essentially no fraud.” — Jonathan Chait, New York


Vote-by-mail could get mired in legal challenges

“While absentee ballots can help keep people safe and expand voting access, they come with a drawback: a greater chance of litigation. Simply put, there are more things that can go wrong with vote-by-mail compared with in-precinct voting. And history shows that a major fight over an election’s outcome is more likely to come in the form of challenges to absentee ballots.” — Edward B. Foley, Politico

It may be too late to have vote-by-mail in place by November

“Only five states have the ability to hold a statewide by-mail election, and it took them years to set it up and work out the kinks. The states considering it now have months, if that.” — Amber Phillips, Washington Post

Vote-by-mail would undermine the integrity of the election

“Vote by mail will likely open up the electoral process to voter intimidation and vote harvesting. The idea behind a physical polling booth is that you alone in privacy can register your vote without fear of reprisal. Vote by mail will deny you that right.” — Adam Brandon, RealClearPolitics

The logistical load could overwhelm election infrastructure

“A dramatic rise in absentee ballot requests could swamp smaller elections boards that have traditionally used a handful of workers to handle mail-in ballots. … It also could mean that the outcome of the presidential race won’t be known for weeks.” — Ryan Teague Beckwith, Bloomberg

The partisan divide on the issue is too much to overcome

“Any illusion of some sort of bipartisan coming-together around elections and voting has been completely shattered. ... despite the health risks of gathering in person — this is really still a partisan-sensitive subject.” — Miles Parks, NPR

States should be in control of their election rules

“Each state should figure out how best to handle its elections. There shouldn’t be a national directive. We as Americans thrive on choices, and elections are something left to the states based on the Constitution. Federalism is based on choices — it lets states make certain choices independent of other states.” — Shawnna Bolick, Washington Examiner

Is there a topic you’d like to see covered in “The 360”? Send your suggestions to

Read more “360”s

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Jason Redmond