A note on COVID-19:
How do we hold elections during a global pandemic? Many political commentators are urging a national transition to all-mail elections as pioneered in Oregon. The League of Women Voters of Maine supports an expansion of voting-by-mail to protect our voters and election workers as part of our civil defense efforts against the pandemic, but we have a word of caution: it’s complicated.
In an analysis of all-mail elections (also known as Universal Vote by Mail) our Advocacy Team identified best practices to ensure that no voter is left behind. We hope that our conclusions will help inform thinking about how best to guarantee secure, accessible and accurate elections in this time of great uncertainty and for the future.
In late Fall 2019, The League of Women Voters of Maine began an analysis of Universal Vote by Mail (UVBM) as an election method for use in Maine. LWVME’s position on issues is determined by member consensus. In the absence of a stand-alone position on UVBM, the League testified Neither For Nor Against Vote-by-Mail legislation introduced in the first session of the 129th Legislature. Interest in UVBM has been trending nationally, and we anticipate that UVBM will be reintroduced in future Legislative sessions. We began this analysis to determine whether current League positions provide a sufficient basis on which to take a stand for or against UVBM for Maine. We have gathered evidence on the pros and cons of UVBM as it has been implemented in other states. We compared these implementations to the current system of elections in Maine, and made informed estimates of UVBM’s potential impact on voter participation, election security, and administrative costs.
The League’s analysis of UVBM is timely. Although we couldn’t have known it when we began our analysis, the coronavirus has become a public health crisis which has dramatically impacted almost every part of life in America, voting included. The recommendations for social distancing to slow the spread of the virus have led to renewed calls for expanded absentee voting and UVBM.
On March 17th, the Maine Legislature voted to temporarily give Governor Janet Mills more power over elections, saying she can take “any reasonable administrative actions” to ensure as many voters as possible are able to participate in the June 9 primaries — including an expansion of absentee voting.
Absentee voting and voting by mail are important parts of ensuring access to voting while keeping people safe during this pandemic, but it isn’t the only solution. We also need to keep polling places open for voters who need them. We can do this in ways that protect both poll workers and voters who chose to vote in person.
We must continue to ensure that elections are administered fairly and in a way that protects access to voting for every eligible American. It is critically important that our leaders work together during this challenging time to ensure that online portals to request absentee ballots are accurate and modern, and that we have the technology and human resources in place to handle a higher volume of absentee ballots and also allow for hygienic drop off locations. We also urge policy makers to not make permanent changes to our elections that limit voter choices, and which may make our elections weaker in the long run.
Conclusions and Recommendations:
In reaching our conclusions, we faced a dilemma. Universal Vote by Mail is promoted as a system that offers maximum convenience and accessibility to voters. However, under normal circumstances, UVBM by its very nature could limit choices on how to vote and reduce civic engagement by eliminating Election Day activities at the polls. Despite new ballot-tracking technologies, there are legitimate security concerns about the delivery, marking, and return of ballots unsupervised by election officials. These concerns apply to absentee voting as well as UVBM, but to the extent that UVBM multiplies the number of absentee ballots, it multiplies the risks.
Beyond voter access in an emergency, the benefits of UVBM are harder to gauge. Voter turnout is hard to measure as it is not only a fluid process, impacted by election cycles, demographics, and political climates; but it also cannot easily be attributed to UVBM. Most states have implemented UVBM in partnership with other highly effective methods that Maine has already adopted or can adopt without UVBM. Further academic study of the impact of UVBM on voter turnout is needed. According to our calculations, UVBM would not save money for Maine, given the high cost of printing, preparing, and mailing ballot packets to every voter, signature verification, and counting returned ballots. Best practices for UVBM, including a more centralized and automated process, would likely be more costly.
- Maine’s election system should protect our current range of choices.
- Voting by mail is convenient. In the absence of UVBM, Maine makes it very easy to request a no-excuse absentee ballot.
- Voting conducted under the supervision of trained election officials is generally more secure than absentee or UVBM voting.
- Voting conducted under the supervision of trained election officials provides more opportunities for voters to correct improperly marked ballots.
- Further academic study of the impact of UVBM on voter turnout and engagement is needed.
- Implementation of UVBM in Maine according to the best practices outlined above would be unlikely to offer significant cost savings. This analysis could not identify any savings by implementing UVBM under the current system, and the significant changes needed for best practices outlined above could likely increase costs more.
- Best practices developed for UVBM related specifically to handling absentee ballots should be reviewed and implemented where applicable.
- Outreach to all voters and an invitation to vote are where UVBM shines. We would support providing more resources to the Secretary of State so that sample ballots, election guides, and invitations to vote could be mailed to every household before every election.
- In order to maintain lower costs, increase security, and decrease the impact of timeliness of voting, per the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project, we recommend promoting voting methods in the following order: Election Day in-person voting, early voting, and absentee ballots.