Democrats, preferring to risk COVID than losing to Trump, are shifting away from voting by mail

David Knowles
·Editor
·8 mins read

For months, Democratic Party officials concerned about the safety of voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic promoted voting by mail, and rank-and-file members have responded, requesting, by large margins, more mail-in ballots than Republicans in several states that will help decide the 2020 election.

But as President Trump has waged a war on the legitimacy of voting by mail, even while planning to do so himself, many Democrats have had a change of heart and have decided to cast their ballots in person.

The shift in focus was signaled at the Democratic National Convention when former first lady Michelle Obama warned in her speech that “we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

“We’ve gotta vote early, in person if we can,” Obama, who had spent the past several months pushing lawmakers nationwide to make voting by mail easier, told her audience.

In this image from video, former first lady Michelle Obama speaks during the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (Democratic National Convention via AP)
Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks during the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17. (Democratic National Convention via AP)

As that message spread, others in the party began making it known that they would not let coronavirus concerns keep them from showing up at their polling place.

By the time Obama and Ocasio-Cortez issued their calls to voters, nearly 47 percent of Biden voters had already decided they would vote by mail, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll. By comparison, just 11 percent of Trump voters said the same.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats have requested nearly three times as many mail-in ballots as Republicans. In Florida, Democrats have so far requested roughly 700,000 more mail-in ballots than Republicans. Ohio Democrats are outpacing Republican mail-in requests even in GOP districts, and have built up large advantages in North Carolina and Iowa.

But several factors have led Democrats to reconsider how they will cast their ballots this year, including the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the U.S. Postal Service, often confusing instructions that voters must follow so that their ballots aren’t disqualified, and the mountain of lawsuits that Republicans have brought to challenge the counting of mail-in ballots.

But the biggest motivation for the Democratic pivot to in-person voting is President Trump’s months-long campaign to discredit voting by mail, which has led to fears that mail-in ballots may be disqualified in some places, or that Trump will refuse to concede an election in which they provide the margin of victory for his opponent.

During Tuesday’s presidential debate in Cleveland, Trump again went after the legitimacy of a process that seems likely to deliver many more votes for Democrats than Republicans.

“This is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump said of the upcoming election, before citing a flurry of incorrect information to justify his view.

The president also intimated, once again, that he may not go along with a peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden should the former vice president beat him thanks to mail-in votes.

“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Trump said.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on his way to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on September 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump is traveling to Minnesota for a fundraising event and a campaign rally. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Trump speaks to reporters on Sept. 30. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Trump’s rationale is that unsolicited mail-in ballots sent by state officials without being requested have a higher potential of fraud than absentee ballots, which must be requested by a voter, in some states with a valid excuse. Trump, whose legal residence is now in Florida, has used absentee ballots himself, as have other members of his family and administration.

There is no evidence to back up Trump’s claim that mail-in ballots are more susceptible to fraud than absentee ones.

Citing the nearly 100,000 defective absentee ballots sent to Brooklyn residents this week by the New York City Board of Elections, the New York Times editorial board published a piece on Wednesday urging readers to cast their votes in person.

“Any New Yorker who is able to do so ought to vote early and in person,” the editorial stated. For a city that was brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic, that advice was striking, and the paper noted that in-person voting “is thought to be relatively low risk” if proper precautions are followed.

That call resonated with Ben Arthur, a 47-year-old resident of Harlem, whose brother was a victim of the ballot mix-up at his address in Brooklyn.

“I definitely feel like those who are able to and are privileged enough to not have to use public resources — anything from a grocery store to an election outlet — should do so,” Arthur, a musician and the founder of the “SongWriter Podcast,” told Yahoo News. “But when the New York Times editorial board said that in their judgment they think it might make a difference, then I’m going to listen.”

Board of Elections officials have blamed the mistakes on the company it hired to print the ballots, and new ballots are being printed and readied for distribution. But even the hint of possible mail-in ballot problems has persuaded many voters to decide to brave the notoriously long lines at New York City polling places.

“I’ll put on my mask and try to go at a low-frequency hour and do it before the election. Hopefully we don’t happen to get into the room with a superspreader,” Arthur said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), stands for a portrait after voting early in the Democratic congressional primary election June 20, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs/File Photo
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after voting early in the New York Democratic congressional primary election on June 20. (Reuters/Caitlin Ochs/File Photo

“I thought it was a no-brainer that because of the pandemic, voting by mail was going to be the obvious choice and it would not be controversial at all. It’s shocking to me that it is controversial in any way,” Steve Swanson, a trial lawyer from Glen Ellyn, Ill., told Yahoo News. “The main reason I changed my mind was because of this nonsense that Trump is advocating, that somehow this election is going to be fraudulent.”

Swanson says he will vote in person next week in DuPage County to assure that Trump can’t dispute the results in his home state, which is considered safe for Democrats.

“The more in-person voting that can get done now, the more election results you’ll have on the day of the election,” Swanson said. “So if it is clear just from the in-person voting that Trump has lost Illinois, then they can take that controversy and potential lawsuit off the table.”

But there’s also a more personal motive behind Swanson’s decision to put on a mask and cast his vote early.

“If I get hit by a bus on Thursday and I voted Wednesday, at least I’ll die knowing I got my shot in,” he said.

In a year in which both parties have cast the election as the single most important in U.S. history, and which could boil down to a few thousand votes in some states, more and more Democrats say they aren’t willing to take chances with their votes.

“We’re shifting away from making plans to vote by mail to voting early in person,” Quentin James, the founder of the Collective PAC, the nation’s largest Black-led political action committee, told Axios.

Voters line up outside to cast ballots in the general election at the Henrico County general registrar's office in Henrico County, Va., Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Voters line up to cast ballots at the Henrico County, Va., general registrar's office on Sept. 18. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

As fears about contracting COVID-19 while wearing a face mask have lessened, the Biden campaign also announced Thursday that it would jump-start its door-to-door canvassing operation.

“We’re now expanding on our strategy in a targeted way that puts the safety of communities first and foremost and helps us mobilize voters who are harder to reach by phone now that we’re in the final stretch — and now that Americans are fully dialed in and ready to make their voices heard,” Biden campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon told the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, in Texas, where polls show a tight race between Trump and Biden, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order Thursday requiring counties to close multiple drop-off sites for absentee and mail-in ballots.

“As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state,” Abbott said in a statement. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”

Democrats say Abbott is changing the rules in order to make it harder to vote.

“It’s a miscalculation on Abbott’s part,” Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman told the Austin American-Statesman. “Texas Democrats will crawl through broken glass to vote these cheaters out of office.”

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