The concurrence of primary voting for the 2020 voting and the onset of a global pandemic caused many to worry about whether the pandemic would disrupt not only primaries but the November elections. One answer seems to be to ramp up balloting by mail.

Veteran journalist Stephen Rosenfeld warns that absentee and mail-in balloting is rife with problems.

Why nationwide voting by mail isn’t a silver bullet in a pandemic

Rosenfeld writes:

“Before the COVID-19 virus upended the 2020 election—where several states delayed presidential primaries, sparking fears that the Trump White House could seek to postpone the November election—Michigan was seeing absentee voting increase in its primary after passing election reforms via a 2018 ballot measure.

“It is a success,” said Roz Kimbrough, Detroit Department of Elections senior training specialist. “We have seven satellite offices for the Detroit municipality that we opened up to accommodate this overflow beyond just going out to the precincts and voting directly in their area—giving them availability to vote absentee.”

“Kimbrough was at a command center in a cavernous downtown convention center hall where she and others were supervising 800 workers who were processing the last of 141,000 absentee ballots that had been cast in the March 10 primary. Thirty-six percent of the city of Detroit had voted absentee, compared to a 27 percent nationwide average in November 2019.

“However, shifting broadly to absentee ballots—which arrive by mail and can be dropped off or mailed back—as congressional Democrats, election law scholars, party officials, campaign lawyers and activists have been saying is the best way to ensure voting next fall amid the pandemic, is not a simple task.

“Before the COVID-19 virus upended the 2020 election—where several states delayed presidential primaries, sparking fears that the Trump White House could seek to postpone the November election—Michigan was seeing absentee voting increase in its primary after passing election reforms via a 2018 ballot measure.

“It is a success,” said Roz Kimbrough, Detroit Department of Elections senior training specialist. “We have seven satellite offices for the Detroit municipality that we opened up to accommodate this overflow beyond just going out to the precincts and voting directly in their area—giving them availability to vote absentee.”

“Kimbrough was at a command center in a cavernous downtown convention center hall where she and others were supervising 800 workers who were processing the last of 141,000 absentee ballots that had been cast in the March 10 primary. Thirty-six percent of the city of Detroit had voted absentee, compared to a 27 percent nationwide average in November 2019.

“However, shifting broadly to absentee ballots—which arrive by mail and can be dropped off or mailed back—as congressional Democrats, election law scholars, party officials, campaign lawyers and activists have been saying is the best way to ensure voting next fall amid the pandemic, is not a simple task.

“Rushing to an all-mail voting system nationwide, without guaranteeing the reasonable availability of in-person polling sites as an alternative, thus risks inadvertently—but profoundly—changing the makeup of the electorate,” writes David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research and former Justice Department voting section attorney, in the Washington Post.

“A switch to all-mail, or mostly mail, voting would also be a massive administrative undertaking,” he continues. “It requires planning, training, procurement of new technology and education of the electorate, particularly if in-person voting is being limited.”

”There are formidable legal, technical and logistical hurdles that must be addressed if a shift to absentee and more early voting options emerges—starting with the fact that one-third of states limit absentee voting, and some even criminalize efforts to assist absentee voters. Before the pandemic broke, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature was “advancing a bill that would prohibit people from helping with or returning any mail ballots outside their own family if they received any ‘benefit’ for doing so,” noted Marc Elias, who filed two-dozen voting rights suits on behalf of Democrats this cycle.

”There are other challenges beyond the legal issues. These issues include the Postal Service’s ability to deliver ballots amid ongoing budget and workforce cuts, how the public will adapt to new voting regimens (March 17 primaries saw confusion and consternation as precincts closed and moved), and ensuring that voters are not disenfranchised.”