As the coronavirus pandemic heightens concerns about participation in November’s general election, advocates are calling on officials in the over one dozen states where voting by mail is heavily restricted to expand access to absentee ballots.
According to research compiled by the National Vote at Home Institute, 16 states limit the distribution of absentee ballots—which can be mailed or otherwise delivered to the voter’s home—to residents who present a lawful excuse for avoiding in-person voting, such as planned travel or a disability.
Of those states, five—West Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, Delaware and Massachusetts—have already waived these limitations for voters in upcoming primary and statewide elections because of public health concerns over the virus’ spread.
The abilities of these and other states to expand vote-by-mail options come November are alternately limited by political will, state law or the state constitution.
Government watchdog group Common Cause has called on all states to “expand vote-by-mail programs and absentee voting wherever possible.”
“This is a time for our country to be united to protect each other as we face COVID-19, and that includes rethinking the way we manage our elections in many states,” Karen Hobert Flynn, the nonprofit’s president, said in a press release.
Many states have received considerable pressure to expand access to mail-in voting, specifically as fears of social proximity have shuttered large swaths of the nation since early March.
The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has been found to live on surfaces for hours, sometimes days, after being expelled by an infected person.
In New York, which has the fourth-largest voting-eligible population in the country, the state’s attorney general called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to suspend in-person voting “until further notice.”
“Voters shouldn’t have to choose between their health and the right to cast a ballot,” Attorney General Letitia James said in a press release. “Let’s make it easier for every voter to cast their vote without spreading the coronavirus and jeopardizing public health. Democracy should not be suspended if there is a safe alternative.”
The presidential primary election in that state was later postponed to June. State Senator Alessandra Biaggi has introduced a bill that would allow any voter concerned about contracting COVID-19 to request an absentee ballot.
In Texas, the state’s Democratic Party has sued in order to implement widespread vote-by-mail procedures for residents fearful of casting a ballot in person on Election Day.
Research has shown that vote-by-mail procedures may have a moderate, if not sizable, impact on voter turnout. A seminal 2000 study of Oregon’s adoption of voting by mail in the 1990s, published in the journal American Politics Research, found that the changes may have increased turnout by as much as 10 percent.
Subsequent research has cast doubt on the degree of the turnout effect in Oregon, though a 2012 study in the same journal affirmed an increase in turnout in special elections.
Critics of mail-in voting argue that these ballots are the most susceptible to misuse. In a 2005 report authored by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, which was co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter, it was determined that “absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.”