The Case for Wearing a Mask and Voting Early In Person

In battleground states, vote by mail could contribute to Trump’s “red mirage” lead on election night.

Steven Hill

A voter fills out a ballot in Baltimore, Maryland in April during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Joe Biden and the Democ­rats are walk­ing into a trap in the key bat­tle­ground states that will decide the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial race, as well as key Sen­ate elec­tions. That trap is called vote by mail” or absen­tee voting.”

In nor­mal times, I am a pro­po­nent of hav­ing a vote by mail option. But these are not nor­mal times. For the Novem­ber 3 elec­tion, it makes much more sense to pro­mote ear­ly vot­ing” in bat­tle­ground states rather than vote by mail. If they want to be sure that their votes will count, able-bod­ied vot­ers in com­pet­i­tive races should not mail in their bal­lots. Instead, they need to show up in per­son to vote, either before or on Elec­tion Day. Despite the dan­gers of the pan­dem­ic, vot­ers who do not have a com­pro­mised immune sys­tem need to do the hero­ic act of stand­ing in line with their masks on, just like we stand in line at the gro­cery store.

The fact is, even if there was no whiff of elec­toral fraud in the air, vote by mail has led to the loss of mil­lions of bal­lots due to errors on the part of the vot­ers, elec­tion admin­is­tra­tors and the postal ser­vice. Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers, espe­cial­ly minor­i­ty vot­ers and young peo­ple, are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly hurt. The data is over­whelm­ing­ly clear on this, yet Democ­rats are ignor­ing it at their peril.

In the recent New York pri­ma­ry elec­tions, tens of thou­sands of mailed bal­lots were nev­er count­ed due to bureau­crat­ic mis­takes. Some bal­lots were post­marked after the elec­tion or nev­er post­marked at all by the postal ser­vice, mak­ing them invalid under state law. Oth­ers were dis­qual­i­fied because vot­ers did­n’t sign on an easy-to-miss sig­na­ture line on the back of the bal­lot enve­lope. Anoth­er 32,000 absen­tee bal­lots were mailed to vot­ers so late that they could­n’t return them in time to be count­ed. Just in New York City’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, over 400,000 mail-in bal­lots were received, but elec­tion offi­cials inval­i­dat­ed more than 84,000 — over a fifth of those ballots.

Across the coun­try, in 24 pri­ma­ry elec­tions this year, more than 500,000 mail-in bal­lots were reject­ed. In Penn­syl­va­nia alone, mail bal­lot prob­lems pre­vent­ed 92,000 peo­ple from cast­ing a valid vote (Don­ald Trump won Penn­syl­va­nia in 2016 by just 44,000 votes). An MIT study of the 2008 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion uncov­ered that near­ly 4 mil­lion vot­ers said they request­ed mail bal­lots but nev­er received them. Anoth­er 2.9 mil­lion bal­lots that were sent out did not make it back to elec­tion offi­cials, and about 800,000 were reject­ed due to vot­er, elec­tion offi­cial or postal ser­vice errors.

Vot­ers in many polling sta­tions ben­e­fit from tech­nol­o­gy like error noti­fi­ca­tion,” which alerts the vot­er if she has made a dis­qual­i­fy­ing mis­take on her bal­lot. But you don’t have that with absen­tee vot­ing. The pipeline that moves mail bal­lots between vot­ers and elec­tion offi­cials is very leaky,” the study concluded.

With vot­ing by mail surg­ing for this elec­tion, the num­ber of reject­ed mail-in bal­lots has been esti­mat­ed to eas­i­ly sur­pass a mil­lion. And those will over­whelm­ing­ly be vot­ers for Joe Biden and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate can­di­dates. Far more Biden vot­ers are plan­ning to vote by mail than Trump vot­ers. One recent study found that near­ly half of Democ­rats said they intend to vote by mail, com­pared to just 28% of Repub­li­can and inde­pen­dent vot­ers. Just as impor­tant, the neg­a­tive impacts will hit minor­i­ty vot­ers and young peo­ple hard­est. A study of Geor­gia’s 2018 midterm elec­tions found that mail-in bal­lots of younger, minor­i­ty and first-time vot­ers are most like­ly to be thrown out.” A study of Flori­da’s 2018 elec­tion deter­mined that mail-in bal­lots cast by Black, His­pan­ic, and oth­er racial and eth­nic minori­ties were more than twice as like­ly to be reject­ed as … bal­lots cast by White absen­tee mail voters.”

That means hun­dreds of thou­sands of more Demo­c­ra­t­ic votes will be thrown out than Repub­li­can votes. The pos­si­bil­i­ty of wide­spread dis­en­fran­chise­ment from mail-in bal­lots is real, yet the Democ­rats have been ignor­ing this and pro­mot­ing vote by mail. That is a big mistake.

To be clear, most elec­tions are won by large mar­gins, such as those in heav­i­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic or Repub­li­can states or dis­tricts, so these vot­ing fail­ures will not over­turn those elec­tion results. But in the bat­tle­ground states, such as Penn­syl­va­nia, Wis­con­sin, Michi­gan, North Car­oli­na or Flori­da, this could well be the decid­ing fac­tor in a close pres­i­den­tial or Sen­ate elec­tion. Add the poten­tial for par­ti­san inter­fer­ence by the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s recent­ly appoint­ed post­mas­ter gen­er­al is a big GOP cam­paign donor, or even par­ti­san Sec­re­taries of State over­see­ing the elec­tions, and you arrive at the dis­turb­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty of mil­lions of mailed-in bal­lots poten­tial­ly nev­er being count­ed, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers being disenfranchised. 

Where is the Biden cam­paign and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship on this? The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee has been push­ing vote by mail to the point that some activists have become ner­vous. I do wor­ry about some of the vote-by-mail push,” said Steve Schale, a Flori­da-based Demo­c­ra­t­ic strate­gist who works with Unite the Coun­try, a pro-Biden super PAC. We should help peo­ple vote in the way they’re most com­fort­able vot­ing. We shouldn’t force them into vote-by-mail.”

Red mirage

But it actu­al­ly gets worse. Even if you mail in your bal­lot well before elec­tion day, and it arrives in time, in a num­ber of states you still have a prob­lem: In most states, elec­tion offi­cials do not start count­ing those bal­lots right away. Of great­est con­cern, the swing states of Michi­gan, Penn­syl­va­nia, Wis­con­sin and New Hamp­shire do not even allow mail-in or absen­tee bal­lots to be processed or vot­ers’ sig­na­tures ver­i­fied before elec­tion day.

So imag­ine this Night­mare Sce­nario: With so many more Biden sup­port­ers vot­ing by mail, that means in a close elec­tion it is pos­si­ble Pres­i­dent Trump will be ahead on elec­tion night, based on par­tial returns in a num­ber of bat­tle­ground states (a sce­nario that has been called a red mirage”). Pres­i­dent Trump already has furi­ous­ly deployed his Twit­ter soap­box to dis­cred­it mailed in bal­lots as fraud­u­lent (even though he him­self has often vot­ed absen­tee). He also has hint­ed that he may not accept the elec­tion results. Dur­ing Flori­da’s guber­na­to­r­i­al and sen­ate elec­tions in 2018, as absen­tee bal­lots were count­ed and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates nar­rowed the vote gap to a sliv­er, Trump tweet­ed that large num­bers of new bal­lots showed up out of nowhere, and many bal­lots are miss­ing or forged.”

So what hap­pens if Trump declares vic­to­ry on elec­tion night, and then tries to dis­pute any late” uncount­ed bal­lots, both in the courts and in the free-for-all of pub­lic opinion?

Sud­den­ly the nation will be gripped in a replay of Bush v. Gore in the 2000 elec­tion — but in sev­er­al bat­tle­ground states. Recall the par­ti­san clash­es and low-inten­si­ty intim­i­da­tion that occurred in 2000 on the pick­et lines out­side the hand counts in Flori­da. Dur­ing the course of a five-week legal war over hang­ing chads and the rules for bal­lot count­ing, pro­test­ers in com­bat fatigues held aloft signs say­ing things like Bush or Rev­o­lu­tion,” with rev­o­lu­tion” in bloody scrawl. Threat­en­ing let­ters were mailed to judges, includ­ing one with an illus­tra­tion of a skull and cross­bones. When George W. Bush was final­ly declared pres­i­dent, thou­sands of Florid­i­ans’ bal­lots still sat in piles across the state, not prop­er­ly count­ed, because the U.S. Supreme Court abort­ed the process.

Now imag­ine the unleash­ing of those tox­ic pas­sions in mul­ti­ple states. Dur­ing the run-up to this 2020 elec­tion, already an alarm­ing num­ber of pro­test­ers have been killed in the ten­sions swirling around the protests amid police over-reac­tion. This has all the mak­ings of a con­sti­tu­tion­al cri­sis loom­ing like a Cat­e­go­ry 5 hur­ri­cane just off­shore. Once the elec­tion is thrown into the hands of a con­ser­v­a­tive-major­i­ty Supreme Court, as the nation saw in Bush v. Gore, five votes beats a rea­son any day.” The recent pass­ing of Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg tilts the court even more toward pro-Trump partisanship.

Pre­vent­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al crisis

How can we pre­vent this elec­tion melt­down? One impor­tant step is that vot­ers in most bat­tle­ground states should for­get vot­ing by mail. Instead, those vot­ers should con­sid­er putting on their masks and stand­ing in line to vote, either before or on elec­tion day. That way, their vote will be tab­u­lat­ed imme­di­ate­ly by the vot­ing equip­ment. Yes, it’s riski­er for per­son­al health, but in the cur­rent cli­mate, vote by mail is riski­er for our rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy. It’s a ter­ri­ble choice to have to make in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic. But unless you have a com­pro­mised immune sys­tem, you should not mail in your bal­lot. Instead, you should refo­cus on mak­ing a plan to do the hero­ic act of show­ing up to vote.

For­tu­nate­ly, a num­ber of states allow you to vote in per­son before elec­tion day. Spread­ing out vot­ing over many days and weeks will cut down con­sid­er­ably on long lines. Oth­er states allow you to drop off your absen­tee vote with elec­tion offi­cials before elec­tion day, which is prefer­able to mail­ing it in — but the prob­lem with that strat­e­gy is that your absen­tee bal­lot may not get count­ed before the tal­ly is released on elec­tion night. It all depends on the elec­tion pro­ce­dures in each state, which vary widely.

For exam­ple, in the bat­tle­grounds of Wis­con­sin, Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan, New Hamp­shire and Iowa, the count­ing of dropped-off absen­tee bal­lots can­not begin before elec­tion day. By elec­tion night, many of those bal­lots will like­ly still lie uncount­ed. It depends on how over­whelmed the vot­ing bureau­cra­cy is, or even the whim of par­ti­san elec­tion offi­cials. In those states, Biden vot­ers need to show up in per­son wear­ing their masks and vote. Don’t even drop off your bal­lot before elec­tion day, because your bal­lot will not be count­ed until after the elec­tion, and that will con­tribute to the red mirage.”

But in oth­er bat­tle­ground states — notably Flori­da, North Car­oli­na, Ohio, Col­orado, Neva­da and Ari­zona—elec­tion offi­cials are allowed to count ear­ly absen­tee bal­lots before elec­tion day, and then release those vote totals right after the clos­ing of the polls on Novem­ber 3. These states also open vote cen­ters many days or weeks before the polls, where any vot­er can imme­di­ate­ly vote. In these states, vot­ers with absen­tee bal­lots should drop them off ear­ly in an offi­cial drop­box or at one of the vote cen­ters, rather than mail­ing them. Even bet­ter would be to show up ear­ly with your mask on and vote at one of the vote centers.

Some Democ­rats and their allies are start­ing to fig­ure out the mail bal­lot dead end” they have steered them­selves into. Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) recent­ly tweet­ed that she will be vot­ing ear­ly and in per­son.” Geor­gia leader Stacey Abrams and her vot­er empow­er­ment group Fair Fight are encour­ag­ing vot­ers to make a plan and vote as soon as pos­si­ble.” They empha­size vot­ing ear­ly either in per­son, using an offi­cial drop-off box, or by mail. Also, the deal struck by NBA play­ers with team own­ers to use their facil­i­ties as sites for ear­ly vot­ing with enough room for social dis­tanc­ing is a step in the right direction.

But these efforts could well be inef­fec­tive for those vot­ers who live in one of the swing states that will not count absen­tee bal­lots until elec­tion day. Those vot­ers run the risk of their bal­lots not being includ­ed in the elec­tion night tal­ly, which in turn will con­tribute to the red mirage” of Trump false­ly appear­ing to lead and imme­di­ate­ly declar­ing vic­to­ry. Cue con­sti­tu­tion­al cri­sis, 2020.

We can best safe­guard our democ­ra­cy this Novem­ber by uti­liz­ing ear­ly vot­ing and, if nec­es­sary, show­ing up to vote with our masks, in as many bat­tle­ground states as pos­si­ble. The Unit­ed States has reached such a per­ilous state that this sim­ple act has become heroic.

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Steven Hill is co-founder of Fair­Vote and the author of sev­en books, includ­ing10 Steps to Repair Amer­i­can Democ­ra­cy” and Fix­ing Elec­tions: The Fail­ure of America’s Win­ner Take All Pol­i­tics”. His opin­ions are his own.

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