By Jim Ellis
July 7, 2020 — With many states emphasizing mail voting as a way to increase voter participation in the COVID-19 era, has adoption of near universal mail voting in the states that have done so achieved its fundamental purpose, or has it caused more problems than it solved?
Voter turnout is always a definitive factor in determining election outcomes, and the push to change voting procedures has occurred in 31 state primaries. Therefore, the voting system alterations, should they continue into the general election, will most likely have a major impact upon the electoral outcomes.
Most of the states adopting change only expanded their mail absentee ballot procedures for the primaries; therefore, we can expect another round of battles over the general election processes to soon come before legislatures and courts.
Many of the states, Maryland, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and New York to name several, had administrative problems with their expanded mail programs including reports of homes receiving multiple ballots because inactive voters were forced to be mailed, some people requesting absentee ballots and not receiving them, and long post-election counting periods because of the large number of mail ballots coming into the county clerk’s offices.
New York, in fact, has still not even completed its unofficial tabulation and the primary was June 23. The Clark County (Nevada) County Clerk said publicly that the directive to mail inactive voters led to chaos in the state primary since so many ballots were being sent to individuals no longer living at the mailed address.
Largely, Democrats and voting rights organizations are attempting to persuade legislatures, governors, and/or the courts to expand the mail absentee ballot voting option to all registered voters both active and inactive, enact same-day voter registration, adopt ballot harvesting, which allows any individual to collect ballots from voters and turn them into county election authorities (this process is only legal in California, to date), and allow ballots to be post-marked on Election Day as opposed to requiring that they be received on voting day. Republicans and conservative organizations typically object to most of these ideas on verification grounds.
In terms of the latter point, the four states that have continually used a complete or virtually complete all-mail voting system see two states allowing Election Day postmarks (California, Washington), and two that require ballots to be returned by voting day (Colorado, Oregon). The states that allow the E-Day postmark require days that turn into weeks before pre-certification vote totals are released, whereas reporting proved smooth and timely in the recently completed Colorado and Oregon primaries.
With that, let’s look at the voting totals in both the pre-and post-COVID-19 periods. In the pre-COVID-19 time frame, those primaries occurring on or before March 17, we will look at only the states that held their statewide primaries, thus eliminating the places that conducted stand-alone presidential primaries.
In the pre-COVID-19 period, seven states ran their full primary elections. Of the seven, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas, none expanded their mail voting procedures because the COVID-19 shut down had either not yet begun or had just been ordered.
In these states, we saw a familiar voting pattern that should set the benchmarks for measuring the post-COVID-19 states that expanded the process. In the seven pre-COVID-19 states, combined major party turnout was generally down compared to 2016, with Democratic turnout exceeding 2016 levels and Republican participation falling below the previous benchmark.
These stats are not surprising in that the Democrats had a competitive presidential nomination contest at the time of these elections, while President Trump was unopposed on the Republican side. It is typical for turnout to go down for unopposed elections. Even the strongest Republican base president of the modern political era, Ronald Reagan, saw his nomination vote totals recede more than 7 million votes from 1980 to 1984, a latter election year that would then see him score a 49-state landslide re-election victory.
Overall in these states, major party turnout was off 5.6 percent in comparison to 2016 vote totals. The pattern of increased Democratic 2020 turnout and decreased Republican participation was present in all of the aforementioned states but two, California, where both parties saw an increase, and Illinois, where each experienced a decrease from their 2016 totals.
In the post-COVID-19 primaries between April 7 and June 2, turnout was actually down for both parties in the states where both conducted primaries in the 2016 and 2020 election cycles (Wisconsin, Ohio, Oregon). None of these, however, had any significant change in their voting procedures.
The June 2 primaries proved the first clear test of expanded absentee ballot voting and five states that held primaries in both 2016 and 2020 changed their voting procedures for the current primary election. In three of the five states (Indiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania), turnout in both parties was actually down in 2020 when compared to the commensurate 2016 totals, though Pennsylvania only expanded the absentee ballot acceptance deadline while the Indiana and Maryland mailed either absentee ballot request forms (Indiana) or the live ballot (Maryland) to all voters.
In two June 2 states where absentee applications or ballots were sent to all voters, New Mexico and Montana, respectively, both parties experienced an increase in voter turnout. In Montana (27.8 percent) and New Mexico (20.7 percent) the major party increase participation figure topped the 20 percent mark in 2020 when compared to 2016.
Despite mail absentee ballot request forms being sent to all voters in Georgia for their postponed June 9 primary, major party turnout dropped 1.5 percent in relation to their 2016 totals. These numbers, however, were different than the other tested states in this report because Democratic turnout was up 41.4 percent, while Republican participation fell 36.8 percent.
Nevada appears to have had a huge increase for both parties over 2016, but the totals are sketchy because no Republican votes were reported in the 2nd Congressional District since Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) was unopposed for re-nomination and did not appear on the ballot in accordance with the state’s election procedure.
South Carolina combined major party turnout was up over 86 percent for 2020 in a state where all voters were allowed to cast absentee ballots. Conversely, West Virginia major party turnout dropped almost 11 percent in their June 9 vote, postponed from May 12, but, in this case, it was the Democrats who saw a 22.7 percent reduction from 2016, while Republican turnout increased 3.1 percent.
The strongest gain for the enhanced mail voting position occurred in Kentucky on June 23. Though it took a week to deliver unofficial final totals, it appears turnout was up substantially for both parties in a place where all had the opportunity to vote absentee for this primary contest. The vote totals saw a combined 41.3 percent increase with Democrats jumping 18.4 percent from 2016 and Republicans up an almost double 86.8 percent from their 2016 total.
Therefore, as you can see from these figures, increasing the mail voting procedure does not always yield higher participation totals, so it remains to be seen just what the various states will propose for their respective general elections.