Historic shifts seen in support for mail-in voting
The coronavirus pandemic is leading to major shifts in how Americans vote across the country and is forcing some of the most restrictive voting states to embrace change in their election procedures.
The change is most apparent on the East Coast, where governors from New England to the South are signaling a new willingness to expand voting measures such as early voting and mail-in ballots, and on Capitol Hill, where leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are strongly in support.
Support for these efforts is spurred on by the public, with Democracy Corps finding in a poll conducted over the past month that more than 70 percent of Americans living in key battleground states are in favor of no-excuse absentee voting, which allows for voters to request an absentee ballot without having to state a reason.
Some Republicans, including President Trump, are still staunchly against voting by mail, arguing it could lead to voter fraud and lessen election chances for the party.
However, a number of Republican governors from states slow to embrace vote-by-mail measures have signaled a newfound openness to it amid the pandemic.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) announced earlier this month he will allow absentee voting in the Granite State’s September primary, notably adding that he would be open to expanding the practice for the general election if the coronavirus still poses a health threat.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) approved legislation last month that would permit communities in the state to implement mail-only or expanded absentee voting for state and local elections through June. The approval did not extend to the state’s September primary.
Meanwhile, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) ordered the state’s June 2 primary to be vote-by-mail and allowed a limited number of polling locations to remain open for those who cannot vote by mail.
“You’re seeing governors, regardless of party, really succumbing to the pressures of the moment, I think, rather than protecting the integrity of the ballot box,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told The Hill. “I think what a lot of these governors don’t recognize is that what looks good today, may not look good tomorrow.”
In Georgia, Iowa and Ohio, the Republican secretaries of state are spearheading efforts to send absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter ahead of primary elections.
Experts say the move is not only political, but also represents a shift in regional dynamics on the country’s Eastern Seaboard in contrast to the more liberal and new West Coast.
“The places that in the past, pre-pandemic, embraced mail-in voting and that kind of reform most liberally and aggressively, tended to be in the far west, and what I call the left coast, the young regions of the country,” said Colin Woodard, author of “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.”
The states that fully voted by mail prior to the COVID-19 pandemic were Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. Other states such as California allow voters to opt to vote by mail.
“The far west, the interior west is a place that has done all kinds of reform, [it’s] among the first places to introduce women’s suffrage, for instance, and other political reforms,” Woodard continued.
“On the eastern half of the continent, where the history runs very deep, and the cultural forces go back 400 years, there are very different starting points,” Woodard said.
Woodard said voting practices in New England can be traced back to the first Puritan settlements, where civic participation and communal governance like town halls are essential.
“The turnout rates of many of those parts of the country are the highest,” Woodard said. “There’s a little skepticism to the disengaged, atomized individualism of ‘oh, I’m going to mail it in.’ ”
New York and much of the tri-state area, which is heavily influenced by its ancestral Dutch tradition of limited democracy, has also been moving in the direction of expanded voter participation.
“In the practicalities of it, it cannot function without a strong commitment to the common good,” Woodard said. “It doesn’t need to function morally. You can have a party-boss system as New York had for a long time, and that’s fine as long as it delivers.”
New York was already on the way to expanding early vote measures prior to the pandemic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation in 2019 allowing no-excuse absentee voting by mail, early voting eight days before an election, and making Election Day a holiday.
Cuomo issued an executive order last week allowing all voters in the Empire State to vote from home for the June 23 primary, which was already postponed from April 28.
“This whole crisis is, in a lot of ways, hastening changes that are already coming,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “Whether that’s economical [or] societal, and that touches voting too. Once you open up access to people for voting, it’s very hard to put the genie back into the bottle, and also, there’s no clear reasoning to do so.”
Woodard said the situation regarding the pandemic has turned the vote-by-mail issue into “a common good issue,” motivating areas of the country to make changes to voter participation processes.
However, the southeast portion of the U.S. has been among the most reluctant regions to embrace this change.
“In the tidewater zone in the Chesapeake Country and adjacent lowlands, its tradition is like Downton Abbey,” Woodard said. “That hierarchical system with a respect for authority and tradition, and not an emphasis on public and mass participation was the norm.”
Still, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed a series of bills on Sunday aimed at expanding voter access, including making Election Day a holiday and no longer requiring voters to show a photo ID prior to casting a ballot.
A group of Senate Democrats is now leading the charge for a nationwide shift to vote-by-mail.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who was elected to the Senate through mail-in voting in 1996, has long heralded voting by mail as a secure choice for casting ballots.
Wyden is pushing for more funding for mail-in voting on Capitol Hill alongside Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.). The stimulus package signed into law by President Trump last month included $400 million to boost the ability of states to run elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many say $4 billion is needed to adequately cover the costs.
Wyden also introduced legislation last month with Klobuchar to expand early in-person voting and mail-in options, but Republicans have remained skeptical over legislation they say could impose mandates on states.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner (R) said during a press call last week that he would be staunchly against any mandates over how to use the funds, or any legislation around vote-by-mail.
“We don’t need outside federal guidelines right now to tell us how to run the election, our concern over vote by mail is concern over election fraud,” Warner said. “We don’t want to expand opportunities for misuse of the election process.”
Regardless of the politics, political observers note that changes to voting procedures will have long-lasting effects on how Americans cast their ballots. The effects could cause the East Coast to look a bit more like the West Coast when it comes to civic participation.
“I don’t think we’re going to do a massive policy change and then undo that massive policy change,” said professor Rachael Cobb, the chairwoman of Suffolk University’s Political Science and Legal Studies Department. “When some of the changes go into place, that will create a kind of stickiness for the policy and it will stay.”