Turnout surges after states expand mail-in voting

States that moved to rapidly expand mail-in balloting amid the coronavirus pandemic are seeing some of their highest levels of voter turnout in years, even as President Trump looks to clamp down on such efforts.

In at least four of the eight states that held primaries on Tuesday, turnout surpassed 2016 levels, with most of the votes being cast via mail, according to an analysis of election returns by The Hill. Each of those states took steps earlier this year to send absentee ballot applications to all of their registered voters.

In Iowa, for instance, total turnout reached 24 percent, up from about 15 percent in the state’s 2016 primaries and its highest ever turnout for a primary. But more strikingly, of the roughly 524,000 votes cast, some 411,000 of them came from absentee ballots – a nearly 1,000 percent increase over 2016 levels.

The high turnout could encourage more states to take similar steps ahead of the November general elections. Trump has resisted such efforts, even threatening last month to hold up federal funding to Michigan and Nevada over state election officials’ decisions to send mail-in ballot applications to registered voters.

The president’s argument against expanding mail-in voting is two-fold: he has claimed that it not only increases the risk of voter fraud, but it gives a structural advantage to Democrats. Elections experts have knocked down those claims, noting that fraud is exceedingly rare in all instances and that there’s little to no evidence that widespread mail-in voting benefits one party over another.

In the states that held primaries on Tuesday, however, the decision to expand mail-in voting was largely nonpartisan, with both Democratic and Republican officials throwing their support behind more robust vote-by-mail efforts.

In Montana, where the governor is a Democrat and the secretary of state is a Republican, Tuesday’s primaries were conducted entirely by mail, and every registered voter was sent a ballot ahead of June 2. As of noon on Friday, turnout hovered near 55 percent, up from about 45 percent in 2016, setting an all-time record for a primary election in the state.

In South Dakota, where Republicans dominate the state government, turnout rose to 28 percent from 22 percent in 2016. Of the more than 154,000 votes cast, absentee ballots accounted for about 89,000, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. By comparison, far more than the roughly 19,000 were requested in the lead up to the 2016 primary.

And in New Mexico, voter turnout in the June 2 primary stood at 40 percent, up from about 34 percent in 2016. Of the nearly 400,000 votes cast, more than 270,000 came from absentee ballots, according to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D). As of Friday, votes were still being tallied in parts of the state.

For mail-in voting advocates, the surge in turnout on Tuesday was a major victory in the biggest test for vote-by-mail since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The June 2 primaries proved what we already knew – access to absentee ballots increases voter turnout,” said Tom Ridge, a Republican former Homeland Security Secretary and governor of Pennsylvania, who co-chairs the bipartisan group VoteSafe.

“That’s especially good news for someone like me who does not believe voting is a privilege, but rather a responsibility of citizenship,” he added. “Voters should have options to demonstrate that responsibility safely and securely during this pandemic.”

Mail-in voting isn’t a new phenomenon in the U.S. Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – already conduct their elections entirely by mail. California and Montana also rely heavily on mail-in voting, while 27 other states already offered so-called “no-excuse” absentee voting before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In the 2018 midterm elections, nearly one in four votes was cast by mail.

But since the pandemic took hold in the U.S. in March, a dozen other states that require voters to provide an excuse in order to cast an absentee ballot have relaxed restrictions to allow any registered voter to vote by mail due to concerns about the coronavirus.

The latest state to join that list was Missouri, where Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed a measure on Thursday allowing all of the state’s registered voters to request a mail-in ballot for the August primary and November general election. Most voters will still have to have their mail-in ballots notarized for them to be accepted.

Four states – Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi – have yet to expand mail-in voting practices amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In one of those states, Texas, the refusal by GOP state officials to expand mail-in voting is at the center of an ongoing legal battle. A federal appeals court blocked an order by a lower court on Thursday that would have allowed people to request mail-in ballots out of concern that in-person voting would put them at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, a judge ruled that the state must give all of its registered voters the option to cast a mail-in ballot during the coronavirus pandemic. That ruling is likely to be appealed.

To be sure, the recent expansions in mail-in voting have caused problems in some parts of the country. A handful of states that held primaries on Tuesday struggled to handle the surge in mail-in ballot requests.

In Indiana, where state officials allowed all voters to cast mail-in ballots but did not mail application forms to everyone, in-person voting appeared on track to outpace absentee voting. In some cases, voters who requested absentee ballots never received them, prompting them to cast their vote in person on primary day.

Votes are still being tallied in Indiana. As of Friday afternoon, turnout stood at 25 percent, with fewer than half of the votes counted coming from mail-in ballots. In 2016, turnout for the state’s primary stood at 38 percent.

In the District of Columbia, which also voted on Tuesday, officials urged all registered voters to cast their ballot by mail. On primary day, they opened just 20 in-person polling sites open instead of the 143 that are usually available. But they ultimately struggled to fulfill all the requests for mail-in ballots, forcing many voters to wait in long lines to vote on Tuesday.

In an effort to respond to the lines, D.C. election officials allowed some voters to submit their ballots by email – a practice that security experts have long warned against.

Turnout in the District only slightly surpassed 2016 levels – 23 percent to 22 percent. About 65 percent of votes cast were from absentee ballots, according to the D.C. Board of Elections website. Unlike several states that held nominating contests on Tuesday, D.C. did not send mail-in ballot applications to all voters.

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said that the primary was “nothing short of a failed execution.” But she pledged to have the system running smoothly by November.

“I can assure D.C. voters that we will have the appropriate action plan,” she said.

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