Texas GOP shouldn’t fear expanded absentee voting
Taking a cue from President Donald Trump, some Republican officials across the country have been battling plans to expand absentee voting in the midst of the coronavirus shutdowns. That’s a shortsighted decision based on nonexistent evidence of mail-in voter fraud, and on the wrongheaded idea that, as Trump said, such voting won’t “work out well for Republicans.”
The latest example is Texas’ GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been fighting a court ruling that would loosen the state’s unusually strict mail-in standards. A district court judge ruled last month that registered voters who are susceptible to the coronavirus may qualify for an absentee ballot under state rules that allow disabled people to cast one by mail.
Paxton asked a state appeals court to halt the ruling so that he could appeal it, but the court decided that the balloting can proceed. On Friday, the state Supreme Court put a temporary hold on such voting until it has a chance to rule on the merits of the issue. That settles things for the time being, but GOP officials are creating the impression that their main path to victory is to make it harder for people to vote. That’s no strategy for electoral success.
Currently, 29 states allow voters to use absentee ballots for any reason they choose, whereas five automatically send mail ballots to all voters. Texas is one of only 16 states that require an excuse for requesting a mail-in ballot. According to the Texas Secretary of State’s office, Texans who want to vote by absentee ballot must be disabled, 65 years or older, confined in jail, or out of the county on Election Day and during the early in-person voting period.
The stay-at-home orders offer a sensible reason to make it easier to vote with an absentee ballot, but there’s no reason this system shouldn’t be in place all the time. It’s a time-tested system long used by military voters. Oregon has had primarily vote-by-mail elections since the 1990s, with no evidence of systemic fraud. Conservative Utah sends ballots to every voter. In Montana and Arizona, around 70% of voters cast ballots by mail.
Red-leaning Georgia has had a record number of absentee requests this year — and recent reports suggest the ballots disproportionately are requested by Republicans. Voting reforms shouldn’t revolve around partisan outcomes, but these facts rebut the GOP presumption that mail-in voting favors Democratic politicians. Ironically, some progressives oppose the idea because they believe younger, poorer voters are less able to take advantage of mail voting.
Extensive recent research from Stanford University’s Democracy and Polarization Lab finds that “vote-by-mail does not appear to affect either party’s share of turnout” and “does not appear to increase either party’s vote share.” It does, however, modestly increase overall turnout rates, which seems like a reasonable outcome for a voter reform designed to make it easier for people to vote. The conclusions “contradict many popular claims in the media.”
One of the most preposterous reports, made in a RealClear Politics op-ed, noted, “Between 2012 and 2018, 28.3 million mail-in ballots remain unaccounted for, according to data from the federal Election Assistance Commission. The missing ballots amount to nearly one in five of all absentee ballots and ballots mailed to voters residing in states that do elections exclusively by mail.” That sounds frightening, until one looks a little closer at the number.
Those ballots aren’t really missing. They simply are the number of ballots that were sent to voters, but which were never returned to elections officials. “By this logic, all of the more than 250 million votes not cast by in-person Election Day voters from 2012-2018 are ‘missing,’” retorted a blog from the National Vote at Home Institute. In other words, uncast votes are not missing ballots.
The RealClear Politics writer even reported that there’s “no evidence that the millions of missing ballots were used fraudulently,” so it would be foolish to use such attention-grabbing headlines to clamp down on a reasonable means to provide more voters with easily trackable ballots.
By focusing on nonsensical and nonexistent voting problems, Republicans are losing their credibility to discuss serious voter fraud and suppression problems. For instance, California in 2016 legalized ballot-harvesting, which allows political parties and unions to collect ballots from individual voters and hand them in to polling stations. Such a process enables activist groups to exert pressure on voters and even to take ballots into their possession.
That seems like an invitation to abuse — or at least a system that is worth examining in terms of its potential fraud effects. Likewise, efforts to allow online voting also are dangerous, given that there are insufficient ways to prevent hacking and to track people’s votes. But those two concepts are a far cry from simply allowing people to vote by absentee ballot. They should not be conflated.
Texas’ absentee ballot court battle centers on the definition of a “disability.” The bigger issue — about how easily Texas voters can, in general, cast absentee ballots — should be decided by the Texas Legislature. If Republican lawmakers identify problems with absentee voting, they should identify them. They shouldn’t resist based on unsubstantiated or knee-jerk arguments, or unrealistic fears that it will shift the balance of power.